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Phil opens his eyes to cold, drenching rain, and it slowly dawns on him that he doesn't know where he is.

Wet grass bristles under his hands, the ground hard at his back. His ears are ringing faintly under the rumble of thunder; above him, the clouds are dark, mostly blocked from sight by branches thick with leaves.

How did he get here? When did he get here?

The last thing he remembers is the car, a faint repeating sound, and a familiar presence in the right edge of his vision, something that belonged there. He blinks hard to push away the rain blurring everything, and in the brief clarity, he sees something to his left.

He struggles to turn enough to look, caught by a sticky feeling on the back of his head. Pain cuts sharp and tight through the side of his neck at the motion, but he forces through it.

Sitting beside him, folded down on his knees with his head bowed and his body curved low, is Clint Barton, staring glassy-eyed at the ground. Blood washes down through the fibers of his shirt at one shoulder, stains the side of his face over dark bruises; if not for the small movement of his slumped shoulders, slowly breathing, Phil would think he was dead.

Distant footsteps pound against the earth somewhere nearby, mixed with voices, and the rain clouds Phil's eyes until they close, dragging away the sound until everything is dark and quiet.

++ Two Months Later ++

Phil glances over the hood of the car just in time to see a distant burst of light and the Iron Man armor hurtling through the air.

Stark hits the ground in a burst of sand barely visible from Phil's position, knocked maybe two hundred yards by a single hit, and there's no movement as the dust settles. If Stark is out of commission, that leaves only the two of them.

The morning's distress call split the Avengers on opposite ends of the country; Stark only escaped joining the others in New York thanks to a week-old concussion he was still shaking off, and Barton's request to return to full duty still hadn't been cleared by certain SHIELD Medical personnel. That left only the two of them at headquarters, and Phil for backup, when the science teams came shouting about energy readings in the desert a few hours later.

Which is how he and Barton wound up crouched behind a car in the middle of the Mojave, fifty feet from Loki and whatever it is Loki used to throw 400 pounds of armored billionaire like a rag doll.

"Any idea what he got his hands on?" Barton asks, ducking lower next to him. Phil shakes his head.

"Haven't gotten a clear look." All he's seen is flashes of crackling yellow light from behind cover, and now that he's thinking about it, he's hit with the disquieting possibility of an electrical disruption. "Get eyes on Stark," he orders. "Tell me if his chestplate is still lit." Barton sidles toward the rear wheel and leans up to look over the trunk of the car.

"I see blue out there," he says slowly. "Can't tell if it's steady, but—down, shit, Coulson, down!" Before Phil can move, Barton is already pulling him away from the car and shoving him down, a heavy arm pinning Phil to the ground.

Blinking sand from his eyes, Phil hears the air crackle above them, the crunch of metal; he turns to find the car flipped and mangled, debris scattered across the sand where they stood a moment ago. They've lost their only cover for miles, and Loki has his eyes fixed on them, hands cradling a black orb, yellow light arcing from its surface like small solar flares.

"Yeah, this is bad," Barton says, picking up his bow. "If he gets loose with a weapon like that, we're gonna have a problem."

"I'd say we have one now," says Phil. Barton draws an arrow and nocks it.

"You go check on Tony," he says, nodding off in the direction Stark was flung by the blast.

"While you do what, exactly?"

Instead of answering, Barton releases the arrow.

The arrow passes within an inch of Loki's head. Loki doesn't so much as blink, but after a moment, a smile creeps onto his face, and Barton laughs quietly next to Phil. Under a movement of Loki's fingers, the orb starts to spark, and Barton is already running in the opposite direction from Stark before Phil can protest.

"Of course," Phil says bitterly as he turns to make a run for the armor. He can write Barton up for playing chicken with Norse gods later.

"Stark," Phil says into his wrist-comm, but there's no response; either there's a short in the radio wiring, or he's unconscious. Either way, he won't take well to another hit from Loki. "If you can hear me, I'm moving to your position."

The sand gives too easily under his feet and the sun bears down on him like a weight, but he draws gradually closer to Stark, relieved to see the chestplate glowing a steady blue. Scorch marks and displaced sand under the gauntlets suggest he fired his repulsors to cushion the landing, meaning he was at least conscious after the hit.

Phil drops next to the armor, breathing heavily, and looks over his shoulder to see Barton rolling aside, barely missed by a ball of energy fired from the orb. It passes too close for comfort. Fear rises at the back of Phil's mind, unexpected, and he shakes it off, trying not to think of the fact that there's nothing to stop Barton from being splattered across the sand on impact if he's hit as hard as Stark was.

"Stark," Phil says, knuckles tapping the helmet. The armor hums under his hand, still active, and after a moment, the faceplate retracts, revealing Stark wincing and groggy, but alive at least.

"What happened?" he mumbles.

"Loki happened," Phil says. "Hawkeye is drawing his fire, but we need you to make a grab for his weapon."

"Right, retrieve the baseball of death. No problem." Stark sits up, faceplate lowering into place, and the armor hisses as he gets to his feet. He takes a few steps forward, then fires the stabilizers and heads off towards the commotion. Phil follows, slowed again by the sand and still out of breath. Ahead of them, Barton throws himself out of the way of another blast, scrambling to his feet and into a run. His movements are slowing.

Loki turns before Stark can reach him. Though Stark twists away from the next energy burst, it clips him, redirecting his momentum and sending him spiraling down. He rallies quickly this time, pushing himself up, and when the next shot comes his way, he fires the repulsors at the ground, launching him backward and out of its path.

Stark lands shakily on his feet, takes a step forward, then wavers and collapses. Phil doesn't expect him to get up after that. Stark has been knocked around too many times already, and he's still not free of that concussion. Past the armor, Barton staggers, feet catching in the sand, and falls to his hands and knees. The orb sparks in Loki's hands. Whoever he aims at this time, they won't be able to get clear.

With no other options, Phil draws his sidearm. He doesn't line up the sights; it doesn't have to be a clean hit, he just needs to draw attention.

"Loki!" he calls, squeezing the trigger. The bullet grazes Loki's sleeve, and Loki turns, narrowing his eyes at Phil. He's close enough to get a look at the orb now; jagged, right-angled lines wander across its surface, glowing yellow and sparking more flares. The glow intensifies, light darting out from the seams and back in, intensifying.

"Unwise," Loki says.

The orb's whole surface begins to lighten from black to a backlit grey, a charge building. Phil lowers his gun and finds himself doing something he almost always regrets: borrowing from one of Barton's plans.

He takes off in a sprint, away from the others, sand protesting and absorbing too much force under his feet. Loki must know he's trying to be a diversion, but like Barton, Phil is betting Loki will choose toying with someone over actually putting an end to the fight.

Heat and static shove through the air next to Phil, just barely missing, and Phil takes a moment to be grateful for Barton's instincts about his opponents. A moment later, another strike passes over Phil's head, and he throws himself down to the sand on reflex, knowing the moment he hits the ground that Loki did that just to get him off his feet.

He rolls over, tries to sit up, and past Loki he sees Barton standing sure-footed again, drawing an arrow back, saying something Phil is too far away to hear. The orb brightens as Loki turns to face Barton, who watches with intense concentration without releasing the arrow.

The seconds drag on, infinitely long in the moment of the standoff.

Just when Phil thinks Barton is going to drop the bluff and run, he lets go, and the arrow flies.

Loki stumbles back, holding the orb away from himself as it brightens, white light lashing out and coiling back in, gathering at the point where Barton's arrow protrudes from one of the glowing lines on the surface.

The orb's lights fade, drained toward one edge, angled in Barton's direction, and Phil sees Loki's look of surprise shift too-easily to satisfaction.

"Barton!" Phil warns, but Barton is watching the orb without moving, too far away for Phil to read his expression. The lights converge suddenly into a single point, frozen there for an instant before releasing the energy, an unbroken line of razor-thin light through the air.

There is no crunch of impact or throw across the sand, no motion of force or resistance at all as he beam pierces cleanly through Barton's side. Barton lowers his eyes, hand shaking as he touches it to the point of entry, slowly, uncertain. Dropping to his knees, he stares at the wound, then at Loki, and then blankly away at nothing at all. He slumps to the ground, motionless.

Loki lets the orb roll from his hands, its surface dulled and dark, and despite the light grip he had in carrying it, it drops to the sand and sinks . He looks over his shoulder, directly at Phil, his eyes cold green and his expression unreadable. Blurred by the heat haze rising from the sand, he vanishes.

Phil struggles to his feet, red armor rising in the corner of his vision, and Stark crosses the space with a few careful bursts of the repulsors, landing next to Barton.

At the sight of Barton's still form, an abstract fear presses at the back of Phil's mind. He pushes away that thought and shoves forward across the sand again. This is not the time.

"He's breathing," Stark says as Phil approaches, his voice output distorted at the edges. "His temperature is way up and his pulse is all over the place, though. I'd fly him back to HQ myself, but I don't know if the armor will hold up with another person's weight. Loki rattled me pretty good."

"They'll send someone," Phil says. "I sent the coordinates as soon as we got visual confirmation on Loki."

"Of course you did," says Stark dryly. Phil ignores him and kneels next to Barton. He's unconscious, and there's a gash on his left arm bleeding free and heavy into the sand. But, he's alive, at least.

Phil checks the beam's point of entry, finding a perfect circular hole through the armor. Beneath it, however, there's no blood and no open wound, only a faint coloring to the skin like an old scar. Phil briefly wonders if it burned through, but he's seen cauterization, and this isn't it. He carefully rolls Barton onto his side, checking the back of the armor; there's an identical hole, and the exit site is marked only by another blotch of darkened skin.

"That doesn't look good," Stark says. "Like a radiation burn."

"Let's not jump to conclusions." Phil looks around for the orb and spots it a few yards away, dusted with sand. "If Loki came looking for something like that with enough familiarity to use it, it's probably magic."

"Of course it is," Stark mutters, walking around to sit on Barton's other side. The bulk of the armor shields Barton's face from the sun. "Whatever it is, at least it's out of commission now." He nudges Barton's shoulder with one gauntleted hand, moving it down to clamp over the wound in his arm. "First time out in two months and you manage to get shot. Takes some skill, buddy."

"He's always been reckless," Phil reminds him.

"Yeah, and he's always been lucky." Stark shrugs. "By the way, radio's back. SHIELD said they'll have someone out here to pick us up in about ten." Phil nods to show he heard. There's a pause, which rings multiple alarms in Phil's head before Stark even opens his mouth. "So, uh," Stark says uncomfortably.

Phil tries to communicate solely through his eyes how much he desperately doesn't want to have the conversation Stark is trying to have, but Tony Stark is nothing if not a walking complication in Phil's life.

"You two seem to be doing... good," Stark says cautiously.

"We've been on assignments together for a long time," says Phil. "Work is work."

Stark doesn't have anything to say to that, miraculously; he's quiet for a moment, then clears his throat uncomfortably, talking to JARVIS about diverting energy from damaged areas of the suit.

Phil looks far away from Barton, watching the road until the black dot of a SHIELD SUV appears on the horizon.

+++

Back at headquarters Stark and Barton are hustled away to SHIELD Medical, a science team contains and transports the orb to a lab under the main complex, and Phil gets back to his favorite pastime at SHIELD, namely paperwork.

"Don't you have junior agents to pass this stuff onto?" Natasha asks, leaning in his doorway. Phil looks up in surprise and nods her in.

"How was Brooklyn?" he asks, and she sprawls in the chair on the other side of his desk with a miserable noise. "That bad?"

"I hate frost giants." She thumbs a square of gauze on her forehead and sighs. "Once I ran out of explosives, I got stuck on diversionary and civilian rescue duties with Steve. Thor and Bruce were the only ones who could put a dent in those guys," she says, and steals a pencil off Phil's desk, twirling it in her fingers in way that he's always found vaguely threatening. "Rumor has it you got some quality time with Loki."

"Unfortunately, yes." Phil slides the report across the desk. "We retrieved what he came looking for, but the lab analysis will probably be more pre-written copy about 'inconclusive results'."

"They can at least pick up, what do you call it—those foreign dimensional particles that Stark set up scans for, right? Can at least tell us if it originated from one of those other realms like Asgard or Jotunheim."

"True," Phil concedes. "But, they'll still end up saying there's nothing they can do about it, due to 'lack of available consultation'."

"Lack of people who aren't total whack-jobs, you mean." She picks up the folder. "They send you to vet any more of those candidates for the 'Metaphysics Consultant' office?"

"That's what junior agents are for," Phil says.

Natasha hums, then raises an eyebrow at the report. Her eyes widen in alarm as she turns another page, then flips back.

"They sent Clint into the field?" she asks, still staring at the report. "I thought psych hadn't cleared him yet?"

"They haven't. He did fine," Phil says, but apparently that's the wrong answer, because a second later Natasha's eyes meet Phil's, deadly serious, as she tosses the report back onto the desk.

"Fine, for someone who's only been back on the range for a week," she growls. "What's Medical saying about his condition?"

"I haven't been down to collect the injury reports yet," Phil says.

"Of course you haven't," Natasha says, standing sharply from her chair and stalking over to close the door.

"If I show up at Medical, the psychologists will take it as an excuse to drag me into another evaluation," Phil says mildly. There's a rush of air past his neck, and the pencil stolen from his desk embeds in the chair just above his shoulder, a charitable warning to stop making excuses.

"You were going to let me walk out of here and not say a word about him," she says, dropping herself in the opposite chair again.

"To avoid having this conversation? Yes," he replies, pulling the pencil out of his chair and setting it on his desk.

"So whose bright idea was it to stick you two in the field together?" she asks abruptly.

"We were short of hands." Phil picks up his report and gets back to summing up the mission. "Work is work."

"Bullshit."

She glares at him, and he looks uneasily back as he clarifies: "His words, not mine."

The fight goes out of Natasha all at once, as she sinks down in a tired slouch.

"You're lucky I'm too worn out to give you an immediate reason to talk to the doctors," she says halfheartedly, turning her head to look at the door and off, vaguely, in the direction of Medical.

"Wouldn't do anything even if you could," he reassures her. "I've started keeping first aid supplies in my office since the last time you tried that."

She gives a pen on his desk a contemplative look, but before she can get into any more friendly intimidation, there's another knock on the door.

"It's open," Phil calls. A junior agent steps in, a folder in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, held out like a sacrificial offering.

"I could only get Mr. Stark's, sir," she says, apologetic. "They said Hawkeye's not awake yet and they didn't have the necessary release of information because of his field status, sir."

"Don't call him 'sir' so much," Natasha says, and steals the cup of coffee.

Phil accepts Stark's file, thanking the junior agent. She nods quickly and flees his office, shutting the door behind her. Phil frowns uncomfortably after her, which doesn't escape Natasha.

"Gee, how sad for you," Natasha says dryly. "People having the wrong idea about you and avoiding you. Must be awful."

Phil picks up his assignment report and leans back in his chair, flipping open the folder. He has infinite patience (and understanding) for Natasha's outright anger, but he's had more than enough passive aggression from other SHIELD personnel these past two months.

"I'm not avoiding anyone."

"Says the man doing all of his own paperwork when he has a squad of junior agents on hand," she says. The sarcastic edge in her voice dulls when she continues: "Then again, if I had everyone whispering over their shoulders about me, I wouldn't want to be out and around much, either."

The words push a creeping sensation under Phil's skin, tracing lines where a scar runs four jagged inches around the back of his neck and along the side, wider at each end from entry and exit, and Phil grips his pen to suppress the urge to press his hand over the mark and smooth the crawling feeling away.

Bullet graze, they told him in the debriefing ages ago. Amazing that it missed any essential structures, though, not surprising if you consider the source.

But Phil hasn't "considered", and he's told Natasha that a hundred times; he's done repeating himself. If she wants to keep hounding him like he's commiserating with the psych staff, she can do it on her own time.

"I have a report to finish," Phil says wearily, with as much finality as he can manage.

He's expecting a fight, but Natasha just stands from the chair, shrugging the tension out of her shoulders.

"All right," she says dully, running a hand through her hair to brush her bangs away from the edges of the bandage on her forehead.

There's a kind of disappointment there that guilts him worse than anything, but he makes no move to stop her or say anything else. She leaves without another protest, and Phil's office falls silent.

Phil closes his eyes and sighs, letting the frustration seep out. When he turns back to the report, his pen hovers over the personnel evaluation, taps against the bold print asking what caused injuries to the agent or consultant in question.

He thinks of all the times he's been over this form with Barton's name at the top, carefully writing disregard for personal safety in the blank after nearly every mission. Today's incident fits the description as well as ever.

He thinks of two months of evaluations, two months of the psychology staff digging up his old reports and nodding in understanding, taking notes for their evaluations, thanking him for his help.

Phil touches his pen to the blank writes appropriate tactical risk instead.

+++

He spends the next two days handling the lingering paperwork from the Loki incident, in and out of meetings about Justin Hammer and a corrupt DA who may have greased a few palms at white-collar prison to let Hammer slip out of custody. SHIELD can handle the DA, but it's going to take legwork to find Hammer and whatever bank accounts he managed to keep hidden.

Phil is in the middle of filling out some requisition forms for SHIELD R&D when a stack of paper lands on his desk, a heavy hand leaning on top of it.

"Next time you see me starting to do something stupid," Barton says, eyes on his paperwork to pull a few paperclips away, "Remind me that my screw-ups always cost me a couple days of this red tape bullshit."

"I'd heard you might be up and around," says Phil. "How's the side?" Barton glances speculatively down at the spot where the beam hit him, a faint outline of bandage lines showing through his t-shirt.

"Still got the marks, but they didn't find anything weird," he says. "Report's just the same old same."

Phil sets his pen aside and picks up the top packet from the pile, flipping through the injury report. The page on the damage from the orb is exactly what Phil expected: no internal injuries, no abnormal levels of radiation, but due to lack of consultation on the source, ultimately—

"Inconclusive," Phil reads aloud. "Of course."

"Yeah, what can you do." Barton shrugs.

Nodding, Phil picks up the stack of paperwork and starts sorting through, separating them out based on where he needs to take them for filing later.

Barton stands awkwardly by the desk, eyes raised to the ceiling, and Phil reluctantly looks up at him again after a moment, hoping this isn't going where he thinks it's going. The field op went fine. They can still work together. There's nothing to discuss.

"Was there anything else you needed?" Phil asks. Barton, his expression as intensely uncomfortable as Phil's and pointed at the wall, opens his mouth to say something. On the desk, Phil's phone buzzes suddenly, FURY flashing on the caller ID. Phil starts: "I should—"

"Yeah," Barton agrees, waving towards the phone.

"Coulson," Phil answers, phone to his ear. "Hawkeye's here too, sir."

"Put me on speaker," Fury says. Phil sets the phone down on the desk. "Gentlemen, we've got a situation. We found Hammer, but he's had more drones built since he went away, and he's hiding out in a densely-populated area."

"He's waiting for us to show up," Phil presumes.

"Exactly. Going in hot would put about ten city blocks of closedly-packed civilians at risk, and we don't need that kind of trouble. I've sent you the address. Before we put any of the Avengers on the ground, I need you to organize a very quiet, very calm mass evacuation."

"I'll start coordinating with local agencies," Phil says. "Residential area or business district?"

"All business," Fury replies, sounding as relieved as Phil about that. "We'll be up to our ears in corporate lawyers, but no kids on the 6 o'clock news crying 'cause we didn't stop a Hammer drone from frying their puppy. Hawkeye, is your return to active duty still hung up in the system?"

"Yessir," Barton says, posture straightening. "Should go through in a couple days, they tell me."

Phil could spend days cataloguing Barton's many, many issues with authority figures, but he still doesn't know if Barton's deference to Fury is sarcasm or honest respect. It probably helps that Fury is one of the few people who hasn't treated either of them differently these past two months.

"It goes through now, if Agent Coulson here gives you the all-clear. I haven't read your report on the Mojave incident, so tell me, Coulson. His aim look good? You think he's up for some drone-bashing?" Fury asks, with the weight of a much heavier question behind it.

Phil puts aside that Barton's first mission out left him incapacitated for two days, not to mention left him with an injury they can't conclusively evaluate for any kind of metaphysical effects. He isn't responsible for Barton and he doesn't have to be—this is just work. And Barton can still work.

He opens his mouth to tell Fury as much, but he's not the first voice to speak up in the room.

"Won't be necessary, sir," Barton says easily. "I'll sit this one out."

Phil looks up in surprise, and Fury goes silent on the other line.

"You," Fury finally says, slow and skeptical.

"Yessir," says Barton with a self-deprecating smile on his face. "I've only had a week on the range and I think I'm still a little rusty. I'd be a liability if they slowed me down out there."

Phil stares. This time, Fury just laughs.

"Well, I'll be damned," he chuckles. "Either you started listening to Coulson here or you finally got some sense knocked into you." His voice shifts to a slightly more warning tone as he goes on. "Take the day, Hawkeye, but if you can shoot, hit the range. You get sloppy, and I'll greenlight those archery-robot blueprints Stark made."

"I'll be sure to put in a few hours while everybody's out," Barton assures him. "As long as Agent Coulson can give me this week's waiver for the range supervisory staff."

"Which I will," Phil says to the phone, opening the bottom drawer of his desk.

"Good. Coulson, get Hawkeye his spot on the range, then get down to the garage and rendezvous with Woo and Waynesboro." Fury pauses. "As for you, Hawkeye."

"Yessir?"

"One time, I'm willing to overlook. If you skip a second mandatory psych evaluation, we're going to have a conversation," Fury says. "Understood?"

"Understood," Barton says, nodding smartly and picking up the waiver form.

"Get moving," Fury tells them, and hangs up. Barton is already heading out the office door without a word, taking any chance of unwanted conversations with him, and the weight of Phil's sigh drags him down to lean against his desk. Work is work.

Sure, it's been sixty-five days since the last time Barton made eye contact with him, but it's not like he's counting.

+++

The situation with Hammer is messy, but not as bad as it could have been. They're herding the last civilians out when the first Hammer drone engages, and Stark is already in position to draw fire away from bystanders. Hulk is right on his heels, throwing the drone away from the barricade and into an evacuated building; it's a free-for-all after that.

Half an hour of distant explosions and collateral damage later, Stark flies out of the melee carrying a struggling, slightly singed Justin Hammer. Stark's armor is scorch-marked and missing a few cracked-off pieces of plating, exposing a few frayed wires.

"Pretty rough out there?" Phil asks, looking the damage up and down as Stark lands in the circle of waiting agents.

"No, no, this is all purely an aesthetic design choice," Stark says dryly, dropping Hammer onto the pavement. "And that was an unfortunate accident."

"I have lawyers," says Hammer, glaring up at them through broken glasses. "I have rights as a citizen!"

"Uh-huh,” Stark says disinterestedly. “You should probably use the one that involves you being silent.”

"Oh, c'mon, Tony, buddy! Have a heart!" Hammer says, then smirks at him. "Oh, wait..."

"Coulson," Stark warns, raising a gauntlet towards Hammer. "You wanna take this guy in before I have some kind of repulsor misfire?" Phil moves in, but Jim Woo nudges him aside, already stooping down next to Hammer.

"Mr. Hammer, if you'll just come with us," Woo says calmly, and helps him up off the ground only to shove him roughly over the hood of the SUV nearby. Cuffs at the ready, he pins Hammer's arms behind his back. Stark watches, inscrutable behind his faceplate.

"You're lucky I believe in due process, asshole," Stark says, then fires the stabilizers and heads back towards the fight.

Woo shoves the cuffs closed around Hammer's wrists without any particular concern for his circulation, watching Stark go. Stark isn't SHIELD's favorite person, but a few of the agents have a kind of fondness for him. If Woo is less than gentle shoving Hammer into their impromptu interrogation tent, voice dangerously low as he demands the drone deactivation codes, Phil pretends not to notice.

Another explosion shatters the windows of an office building two blocks away, shards catching orange in the fading afternoon light. Phil picks up a strand of fallen wire from the street, watching a plume of smoke rise in the air. Stark isn't having an easy time with the drones, even with his armor; it doesn't bode well for anyone with less.

Phil starts to worry about Barton and Natasha, until he catches himself. Barton is either on the range or stuck with one of the psychologists in Medical, rolling his eyes through another evaluation, and Phil deliberately doesn't let himself worry about any of that.

Things are fine.

Absolutely fine, Phil tells himself, heading into the tent and conveniently looking at his phone right when Woo slams Hammer's head against the table.

+++

Fights anywhere in the downtown area are an ocean of red tape waiting to happen, and today's is nothing new, though the several stacks of paperwork on his floor have at least been inventively arranged in varying heights to form a scale model of the city blocks they cordoned off for the Hammer arrest.

It's the third prank in the past month; this year's crop of new junior agents still haven't forgiven Phil for confiscating the stash of good coffee they kept in the breakroom ceiling. Normally Phil would think up equally creative punishments for this kind of ridiculousness, but he honestly can't bring himself to care, at this point.

He pulls a summary sheet off the top of one of the stacks, glancing over the contents. Statements from the businesses in the area, itemized reports of collateral damage, claims about whiplash injuries and lost wages. They've all been sorted to be completely out of order, of course.

Phil starts to put the page back, then pauses, a familiar static creeping up the back of his neck. In the periphery of his vision, something is just slightly off, and he doesn't need to turn his head to figure it out. He picks up a handful of forms, walking over to his desk and turning his back to the eyes he can feel on him.

"Why are you in my office, Barton?" Phil asks blandly, sitting down.

Barton steps out from behind the bookshelf on the opposite side of the room, hands tucked sullenly in his pockets. The civilian clothes—jeans and a dark, hooded sweatshirt, like he just stepped off a college campus—take a few years off him, but there's a weight in his shoulders that makes him seem older, like he hasn't slept for days. Not that Phil is looking that closely.

"The shrinks won't look for me here," Barton says, glancing at the door. Phil starts making separate piles for the businesses that filed complaints: bank, pharmaceutical building, nonprofit offices.

"Fury's not going to like you skipping your eval," Phil reminds him.

"I got my mandatory done," Barton says. He sidles over to the door and closes it slowly, quietly. "They're chasing me around asking to watch me on the range. Some bullshit about 'projective testing'."

"Well, you can either find somewhere else to hide, or pull up a chair and get to work," says Phil, fanning out a few pages in search of sheets from the bank.

He's focused on the forms for a few seconds, and glances up in surprise when Barton actually does sit down in the chair on the other side of the desk, a stack of forms in his bandaged hands. Completely straight-faced, Barton starts building a few piles on the free space on Phil's desk.

"Don't you have someone else to bother?" Phil asks. "Someone who doesn't have work to do?"

"I sat the Hammer fight out." Barton slouches in the chair, setting another form in place. "At least let me do something useful."

Phil looks at the bandages on Barton's hands, evidence he probably pushed too hard on the range today while they were gone. If he keeps overcompensating, he's going to throw off his aim and be stuck on the bench even longer. Phil sighs, setting down his forms. He may as well give Barton something to do, if it'll get him back in the field and out of Phil's hair.

Work is work, after all.

"I'll get coffee," Phil says. He stands and heads for the door, and doesn't feel Barton's eyes follow him this time.

In the breakroom, he pours as much coffee as the three half-used pots have left in them, stacking the cups neatly to carry back. He's amazed the sludge doesn't corrode through the paper cups, as strong as the coffee here is, untouched by sugar and creamer.

Supposedly, Fury hoards it all in a storeroom near his office, but spreading that rumor is how Phil's last set of junior agents lost their credentials.

Outside the breakroom, he's surprised to see John Facchino walking down the hallway, flanked by the department heads from Medical's mental health wing. Facchino usually doesn't show his face in headquarters; the last Phil heard, he was handling offsite evaluations for burned-out former agents.

Phil deliberately doesn't think too hard about why Facchino would be here, then feels three sets of eyes on him and tries to look like he's very interested in getting these cups of coffee back to his office.

"Agent Coulson," Facchino says, catching eyes with him. They close in before Phil can make a run for it. "We were wondering if you'd seen Hawkeye anywhere."

"Not recently, no," Phil lies, looking back and forth at the other two psychologists, but neither of them bother to explain why Facchino is here.

"You're sure?" asks the one to Facchino's left—the latest head of SHIELD Psychiatric, gray-haired and a Freudian, which gets Phil's hackles up almost as much as the usual "metaphysics consultant" applicants—with a hopeful look. "Maybe he's been by your office?"

There was a time when they would have pulled Phil aside to give him detailed information about why they wanted Hawkeye or what consulting expertise they brought in Facchino for. Now they only come to Phil to use him for information, when they're not trying to wheedle him into evaluations.

But they treated Phil as an ally long enough for him to learn what buttons to push. If he's going to be on the outside looking in for a while, he won't make it easy on them.

"No, I'm afraid not," Phil says, deliberately turning his eyes down to the cups of coffee for a moment to seem avoidant. "And," he adds, pausing to give the trio a regretful half-smile, "I would think I'm the last person Hawkeye wants to be stuck in a room with."

Facchino hums thoughtfully, the Freudian looks like a shark that's just scented blood in the water, and the third man just turns his head away like he's embarrassed on behalf of the other two.

"Well, thank you for your time, Agent," Facchino says, nodding respectfully and walking past Phil down the corridor. The Freudian trails him, and the younger psychologist (Phil thinks he might be the head coordinator of SHIELD's counseling staff, but he can never keep track, the way the jobs in Medical's Psychology staff change hands) pauses on his way past, leaning in next to Phil.

"If you do see Hawkeye, tell him my door is open after his mandatory," the staff coordinator says, nodding politely and heading briskly off after his colleagues.

Phil returns to his office and shoulders the the door open, coffee cups balanced carefully in his hands. He slips inside and leans back against the door to close it.

On Barton's side of the desk, the sorted piles are higher now, and they all seem to be in order. Paperwork is "work" enough, Phil figures. And so is any threat to their continued field status, which is why he starts talking first.

"So, they've got Facchino in on this now?" Phil asks, walking over and setting the coffee cups on the desk.

"Yeah, he's a pain in the ass," Barton says, leaning in to look closer at a scrawl of handwriting on the claim sheet in his hand. "How'd you hear?"

"They're looking for you," Phil says. Barton glances up in alarm to stare at the door, and Phil sits down calmly, picking up a coffee cup. "I told them you weren't here."

Barton exhales the breath he was holding and silently returns to sorting more of Phil's paperwork. He traces a searching line down the next page with a bandaged fingertip, blood threaded lightly in the gauze around it.

"Paper cuts already?" asks Phil. Barton laughs quietly.

"Yeah," he says, rubbing the gauze on his fingers together. "I'm starting to see where those smudges on the mission reports come from." Phil takes a sip of coffee and yawns despite it. "What, you're taking a nap?" Barton asks, smirking. "I'm just helping out, not taking your job."

"If I ever have to spend five hours with Justin Hammer again, you can have my job." Phil settles back in his chair and closes his eyes, arms crossed in his lap.

Phil is used to leaving Barton alone with things while Phil catches enough sleep to function—sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the ground in far-flung assignments, making a sniper's nest of the nearest tree, guarding car windows while Phil sprawled in the backseat. Regardless of everything else, when it comes to work, they've always balanced well with each other.

Putting the forms out of mind, Phil finds that same old safe, easy space to rest his thoughts, and drifts off into light sleep.

When he opens his eyes again, Barton has summarily failed his watch duties and is slumped over snoring quietly into the desk. His face rests on the base of Phil's desk lamp, one corner pressed to his forehead and starting to form a bruise, near his eyebrows furrowed down to tense against the light.

Phil could use one of the old tricks to startle Barton instantly awake, like audibly cock the hammer of his gun in the holster, but all he does is reach across the desk and carefully pull the lamp away, letting Barton's head slip lightly down onto the desk.

"No drooling on the paperwork," Phil says, and Barton makes an unhappy low noise, closing his eyes tighter.

"I'm up, I'm up," he mumbles. He braces his hands on the desk and pushes up, leaning back in the chair. When his fingers slide away from the desk, one hand leaves a smear of blood behind it, but he's apparently too tired to notice. Phil thumbs the handle of his supply drawer and pulls out the tin of bandages.

"Here. Looks like you might have cut your hand," Phil says.

Barton raises his right hand, frowning at it, then the left, and his arm freezes in place as soon as he does. Most of Barton's left hand is coated dark red, thin streams crossing across the back and smeared thick on his palm and fingers. Phil follows the darker patches up his sleeve and spots it just above Barton's elbow-a bloodstain matted into the fabric.

"Or, your stitches tore," Phil corrects himself, maybe not as calmly as he would have liked, and stands. "Let's get you down to Medical."

"Relax," Barton says, waving off the idea. "I had to get a few of them redone already today."

He rolls up his sleeve quickly, calm despite what must be painful friction from the fabric bunching near the wound. There's more blood on his arm, smudged and barely catching the light, partly dry already. Beyond that, sure enough, a few of the stitches are popped.

"Geez, these things are a hassle," says Barton. He cranes his neck towards Phil's supply drawer, calmly curious; there's no sign of pain in his expression at all. "You got a sterile pad in and some gauze in there?"

"How did you not notice that?" Phil asks, pointing to Barton's arm. Barton shrugs.

"Just tired, I guess," he says easily, while Phil watches another trickle of blood run from the corner of the gash. Something about this is wrong. A lot about this is wrong.

"Medical should run some tests," Phil says, nodding him towards the door. "We need to make sure you don't have nerve damage."

"I don't have nerve damage," Barton scoffs.

"You can't know that."

"Yeah, well, I do," Barton says, and there's an edge in it, low and warning. "I don't need to go to Medical. Okay?"

Undeterred, Phil steps in to grab Barton by his other sleeve, pulling him out of the chair. Lurching to his feet, Barton glares at him. Stronger-built men than Barton have tried to intimidate Phil.

"Barton, I hate being down there around the psychologists as much as you, but—"

"Bullshit," Barton growls, and wrenches his arm away from Phil's grasp. He leans on the desk with his clean hand, and doesn't react at all to his weight pressing down on his bandaged fingers. Phil feels like he's catching onto something, but he doesn't know what, exactly.

"Barton," he says cautiously, despite every rational part of his brain telling him not to make this his problem. "How do you know you don't have nerve damage?"

Barton stares down at the floor, then away at Phil's bookcases, looking anywhere but Phil's eyes and saying nothing, avoidant—but that's nothing new.

"If you won't go to Medical, I'm bringing someone down," Phil says, turning around and heading for the door. Halfway there, he hears Barton's footsteps following behind him, fast and heavy with intent, broadcasting that he's ready to stop Phil by force if necessary.

Phil stops with his hand on the doorknob and waits to counter whatever's going to stop him; a hand on his shoulder to haul him back, a shove away from the door, a punch thrown, weight pinning him down.

Then gauze brushes Phil's wrist, bandaged fingers closing gently around his arm without any force or pull at all.

Barton doesn't say anything, just rests his thumb against Phil's pulse and sighs slowly like all the life is going out of him at once.

When Phil turns, Barton's fingers slide away from his arm. Phil leans back against the door to look at Barton, who magnetizes his eyes to the floor and hangs his bandaged, bloodied hands at his sides, shoulders held low with some intangible weight.

"What aren't you telling me?" Phil asks, not nearly the demand he wanted it to sound like.

Barton's jaw works on one side, teeth biting at the inside of his cheek instead of talking, and his bandaged fingers tighten into a fist at his side, knuckles white-skinned over the bones where they aren't covered in gauze.

Phil steadies his voice and says, quietly: "Barton."

"Not here," Barton says, low and sudden. "I mean... we need to talk about this somewhere else."

Phil has a hundred reasons to be wary of that "not here", but there's a static hum under the skin of Phil's wrist where the gauze touched, and the pressure of it, the urgency it pushes against the back of his mind, is the only explanation for what comes out of Phil's mouth.

"Take my coat," Phil says. Before Barton can ask him to repeat himself or Phil can lose his nerve, he goes on. "Take my coat to cover the stains, wash the blood off your hands, then come to the parking garage. Five minutes."

Barton looks up, and for the first time in two months he meets Phil's eyes.

But it's Phil who suddenly turns away from the contact, who slips out the door as fast as he can to walk calmly down the hall towards the elevators, and he doesn't know why.

+++

The trip to Phil's apartment is silent. Phil drives smoothly along the highway, while Barton sits in the passenger seat with a towel over his lap to keep blood off the upholstery, threading stitches through the slice in his arm. They'll be messy, but efficient enough to hold together for now; he's patched up worse in the field, under more stressful conditions.

They spent a lot of their early work together on drives like this, before the Avenger Initiative kicked off and Phil's life was derailed by Norse gods and geniuses with too much time on their hands. Back then, any time they spent time in a car together, Barton would never shut up. He joked, played one-sided games of I Spy just to annoy Phil, struck up conversation about weaponry in his futile (but never-ending) attempts to convince Phil to take up archery.

The last time they were on a drive like this, Barton passed at least an hour telling a funny story about the last time he was in Canada on business, something about caribou and a disgraced mountie. Phil doesn't remember the punchline.

The story, fading out with no ending, is the last thing Phil remembers before the three-day blank in his memory.

They walk up to the apartment without speaking. At the door, Phil turns the knob a fraction to the right and listens for the expected soft click, a quirk of the lock he uses to see if anyone has turned the knob since he left. When it clicks, Barton breathes a small, knowing exhale of relief with him.

Phil nods him into the apartment, closes the door behind them, and stops when he goes to lock it. Barton is in his apartment. Barton looked at him, made physical contact, deliberately took this away from work. What they've been doing has served them fine—they don't need to have this conversation, whatever it is.

He looks over his shoulder at Barton leaning on the kitchen counter by the sink, listlessly scrubbing blood from his hand under the running water. The lights overhead cast tired shadows down his face, weary eyes staring at nothing in particular. It's a familiar expression.

Phil feels like he's too close to something he doesn't want to remember, struck by a sudden, urgent need to move, to get an answer. He steadies his nerves and locks the door.

Joining Barton in the kitchen, Phil nudges him to step aside, taking a bottle of SHIELD-designed enzyme solution from under the sink.

"Gets the blood out easier," Phil says, leaving the bottle on the counter. "I'll get you a clean shirt."

He half expects to see Barton making a run for it when he comes back with the shirt, but Barton is right where Phil left him, still pensively rubbing at the stained creases of his palm with a paper towel and the solution.

Barton doesn't notice him holding out the shirt until Phil clears his throat. Wordlessly nodding his thanks, not looking at Phil's face, Barton takes it and walks past him.

"You should wrap your arm again," Phil says, putting the enzyme away. "There's a first aid kit on the—"

"Third shelf. I remember," Barton says distantly.

"Right," Phil recalls. He tries to think of how long ago it was—a year, maybe?—when his phone rang too early in the morning and he walked half-asleep down the six blocks to the bar.

He found Barton slumped over in one of the booths, roughed-up but breathing, being tended to by a patient waitress with cotton swabs and antibacterial gel. Phil pulled a heavy arm around his shoulders and eased Barton up onto his feet, while the bartender told him about Barton single-handedly ridding the bar of a few violent, armed drunks before anyone (besides Barton) was hurt.

Pretending not to be impressed, Phil thanked him for the call and helped Barton stumble up the street, bowing his head so Barton couldn't see the smile on his face. Barton stayed the night at the apartment, a sleepy sprawl of bruised skin across Phil's couch; casting one last glance at a bandaged pocket-knife stab barely stopped by Barton's left shoulderblade, Phil draped a heavy blanket over Barton's back, and couldn't sleep at all.

"This is gonna be kind of a long story," Barton says nearby, and Phil quickly blinks up at him over the kitchen counter, stirred from his thoughts. First aid kit and bloodied shirt in hand, Barton leans on the wall across from Phil, eyes turned down to watch his hand roll the sleeve of the clean shirt up past the stitches.

"I'm sure I've heard longer," Phil says. "Where do we start?" Barton starts unwinding the strips of gauze from around two of his bandaged fingers.

"Right about here," Barton replies.

The gauze slides away to show the sides of his fingers bruised and bright red around broken skin, callused in places and then split open in others. Phil has seen marks like these before, on missions where Barton could rig a makeshift bow from anything in sight but had nothing to cover his hands.

"Have you been shooting without your glove?" Phil asks.

"Glove's there to prevent pain," Barton says. "Haven't really needed it." Barton watches his fingers, rubbing the raw skin together without so much as a wince.

"But you can still move everything," Phil notes, trying not to look at Barton's hands now. Barton nods.

"Yeah. And I can still feel hot and cold, and I can still tell when I'm touching something and what it feels like," he says, turning his hand over and holding it more clearly out under the light. "I just don't... feel any kind of pain."

It takes Phil a moment to piece that together, and a few more to shake off the immediate reactions. Could be psychosomatic. Could be neurological. Could be illness. Depending on whether it's localized or a general problem, could be anything.

"In your arms?" is what Phil finally manages to ask.

"Anywhere," Barton says. Phil was afraid of that.

"So you haven't felt any pain at all today?" Phil asks slowly, to clarify.

"Not just today. It's been like this since I got zapped by Loki," says Barton. "But that's kinda the tail end of things. We gotta rewind a little." He leans his head against the wall and looks far away from Phil, but his eyes dart back for just a second to touch a spot just past Phil's jaw, the side of his neck. Phil knows what he means.

"Let's sit down before we get into this," Phil says. Barton's general lack of self-preservation is long-established, and another thought crosses Phil's mind out of habit. "We need to wrap your arm—and if you were in evals all morning and down at the range all afternoon, I'm guessing you haven't eaten anything."

"Might've slipped my mind," Barton says, shrugging. Phil turns to the refrigerator and scans over the plates of plastic-wrapped Chinese take-out for something Barton would usually get; he passes the plate of ma po tofu across the counter with a fork on top. "Don't worry about it, Coulson," Barton says, holding up a hand to refuse.

"Eat, or I'm reporting you," Phil says sternly.

"Seriously?" Barton complains.

And no, not seriously, because even Phil has limits, but the fact that Barton looks more annoyed than afraid says he knows that well enough, and he does take the plate despite his whining. Phil picks up the first aid kit and follows him out to the couch.

"Start at the beginning," Phil says, sitting beside Barton on the couch. "Or as close to the beginning as you can." Barton holds up his injured hand to rest in Phil's lap, and Phil opens the antibacterial ointment.

"So you know what I'm talking about," Barton says uneasily. Phil nods.

"Just give me the bullet points," says Phil, turning Barton's hand to better see some of the marks under the light.

"Well, first it was Medical. I noticed after I woke up. Started off slow." Barton prods at his plate of ma po tofu with his fork. "Thought it was just Medical easing me off the painkillers, but even when they weren't dosing me, I could feel it going. Stuff just didn't hurt as much."

"Like what?" Phil carefully dabs some of the antibacterial gel along a cut down the side of Barton's finger.

"Punched a wall," Barton says. He goes on before Phil can ask. "I was pissed," is all he says to explain, thankfully. "My hand felt a little sore afterward, but I didn't really pay attention."

He spears a piece of tofu, but doesn't lift it from the plate. Phil sets to disinfecting another cut on Barton's fingertip, waiting until Barton speaks up again.

"Took about ten minutes for me to finally look down and see I tore all the skin off my knuckles," Barton admits. "I had to sweet-talk a staffer in Medical to do an x-ray and not tell anyone—no fractures," he adds. "When I said it didn't hurt much, she figured it was probably the adrenaline. That was about a week after we got back."

"Didn't hurt much," Phil repeats, falling back a few steps in the conversation. "So you could still feel pain at that point?"

"Mostly, yeah," Barton says. Phil nods thoughtfully.

"And this wall incident was a week out," Phil recalls, setting back to work on Barton's fingers. "Any others?" He cradles the back of Barton's hand in his palm, easing a finger aside with his thumb against an uninjured spot, and feathers a touch of the gel over a cut in the space between Barton's fingers.

"There was another thing a couple weeks ago," Barton says. Barton pauses, watching Phil's hands around his. Phil blinks back at him, and Barton frowns a little. "You don't have to be so careful," he mumbles. "It's not like you can hurt me."

"Old habits," Phil says. "What happened a few weeks ago?"

"I cut my hand—dropped a coffee mug and it broke. Picked up a sharp piece and it got me pretty good, but I felt that even less than I did a ways back." He bends one finger in towards his palm, indicating a faded scar curving near the root of his thumb. "The pain thing kind of stuck there. I only felt it about half as much as normal from then until Loki."

"And now you can't feel any pain at all." Seeing no more open cuts, Phil starts to wrap the fingers again, making a mental note to check the other fingers after they bandage the stitches. "Did you notice anything during the fight?"

"I don't remember much after a certain point." Phil tapes down the gauze, trying not to think too hard about that phrase. "I do remember this, though," says Barton, turning his arm to indicate the stitches. "This hurt."

Phil lays Barton's wrist over his lap and examines the stitches; they aren't bad. One benefit of Barton's tendency to get hurt in the field is that at least he's learned to put in a decent set of these when needed.

"I remember baiting him for a while and rolling over whatever sliced up my arm," Barton goes on. "But I had to read your report to figure out the rest."

"You blacked out?" Phil asks, already not liking the sound of this.

"Yeah. I aimed, and then I woke up in Medical and found out I got zapped." He helpfully lifts his arm as Phil starts winding the gauze around. "But then I noticed this didn't hurt at all. I wasn't on any kind of painkillers, either."

"Which only leaves the orb," Phil sighs, taping down the gauze on Barton's arm. "And here we are without consultation for metaphysical issues."

"Go figure," Barton says, shrugging one-armed. Phil takes Barton's hand again, unwinding the other fingers and his thumb to check them over. He's still careful with Barton's hand; pain or not, he doesn't want to worsen the damage.

They've been quiet too long already, but Phil can't think of anything useful to say, so he just smooths more antibacterial over a friction burn and the line of another cut. When he's halfway finished wrapping the fingers again, Barton speaks up.

"Since the whole thing up north," Barton starts, and Phil readies to cut him off. Knowing Barton's condition and keeping him physically sound is work. This is the line. "Have you had anything weird like this going on?" Barton finishes. Phil breathes out a little too obviously in relief.

"No, nothing unusual," Phil says. Barton nods and leaves it there. Phil packs away the supplies into the first aid kit, standing from the couch. "Eat and then get some sleep. You have another mandatory in the morning, don't you?"

"Bright and early." Barton pushes the fork tines against the same chunk of tofu he started to take earlier. "Facchino's gonna spend an hour alone asking about my hands."

"All the more reason to look rested and fed, at least," Phil says. Barton raises his eyebrows in consideration and finally takes a bite, and Phil goes to put the first aid kit away.

When he returns to the main room, he finds Barton speculatively looking at his fork, chewing slowly with a troubled expression on his face.

"Too strong?" Phil asks, circling the kitchen wall to get a plate for himself.

"Nah, it's fine," Barton says, trailing off. "Just kinda occurred to me. Spicy stuff, it's basically tongue pain, right?" He takes another bite, chews, swallows. "Just tastes like plain sauce," he says quietly, chasing a small block of tofu with his fork.

"I hadn't thought of that," Phil says, scooping half the ma po tofu onto his own plate. The sauce burns across Phil's tongue at the first bite, intensely familiar.

He remembers going to the place down the street from HQ with Barton, ages ago, after the kinds of assignments that made them want to turn in their credentials and never come back; they ordered plate after plate of the spiciest things on the menu and slipped extra bills to the cook to make it even worse.

They would sit for hours in the table by the corner, where the windows let in all the cold air and the lights flickered above them, mouths too full to talk about it and tears in their eyes from the spices, trading plates in silent challenges.

And all the while, lips hurting around terrible idea and never again, they would smile through the pain and feel, in some small way, like they were alive again.

Phil watches Barton take another bite, shoulders low and face shadowed under the apartment lights, staring clear-eyed and silent at the far wall.

+++

Barton is out like a light the second he puts his head down, unsurprisingly.

This is one of the few times Phil has seen it happen on a soft surface. He's used to Barton making himself invisible in rooftop shadows at the end of his watch shift, or tucking his bow along the curve of his body in the corner of a half-destroyed hotel room; Barton always goes to corners when the environment isn’t secure, when he doesn’t feel safe. Barton spread out in a snoring, awkward heap on actual cushions is rare.

Phil doesn't sleep at all. It's not that he's avoiding it, exactly. He sleeps enough to function, and enough to keep clear-headed. He never jeopardizes his field performance.

But there's a pile of paperwork in his briefcase, and if it's just tall enough to keep him occupied until morning, Phil is an innocent victim of circumstance.

He settles in at the table across the main room from the couch, forms stacked neatly beside him as he brings up records to cross-check on his laptop. The Hammer incident left them with a broad scope of cleanup to handle, and tonight, Phil should be able to at least get the report of significant damages finished. It wouldn't kill him to delegate the small claims in the morning.

Phil starts to type up a rough list of the few junior agents he trusts not to completely throw off the entire SHIELD paperwork system, barely halfway through the list when the keyboard rattles suddenly under his fingers, keys clacking as a new line of text appears, sharp green against the white background.

//Hello, Agent Coulson.//

Phil blinks at the screen, not remotely fazed. Of course Loki can't resist barging into an orderly system. Sighing, Phil starts to turn toward the couch.

"Barton, we've got a—" He stops as the keys rattle again, cutting him off. Phil watches the new line run across the screen, letter by letter.

//Hawkeye won't be joining us for this conversation.//

On the couch, Barton gives a sudden yelp, one Phil would mistake for pain if he didn't know any better. Phil keeps his face impassive.

"You can't use him to indimidate me," Phil says.

//I hadn't planned on it. I'm merely deepening his sleep to give us our privacy. A pity our feathered friend has such unpleasant dreams.//

Beneath the typing, there's a quiet scratching from the couch, gauze clawing against the cushions beneath a small, strained vocal noise.

"Tell me what you want, Loki," Phil says evenly.

//In due time. First, there is something you should know, Agent Coulson. It would be in yours and Hawkeye’s best interests to listen closely.//

Phil steadies himself against what he knows is coming, and sure enough, Loki fires his warning shot: Barton’s faint whimper breaks out into a ragged cry, couch springs protesting with a sharp movement like he’s kicking or struggling, and Phil’s hands curl tight against the sides of the laptop.

He detaches. No matter what leverage the enemy tries to use, SHIELD Agents don't show fear, and they don't negotiate. All Phil needs to do is get more information.

“I'm listening,” he says. Behind him, Barton’s breathing quickens, but it’s the only sound he’s making now. Phil’s keyboard starts to clack again, slowly this time.

//You fear magic, Agent Coulson. But of course, you mortals always fear what you don’t understand.//

Phil says nothing, held silent only by the constant undercurrent of Barton’s labored breathing.

//It may surprise you to learn that magic, much like your technology, has an order. This machine operates as a whole. But if two pieces meant to connect are pulled apart//

The line of text stops abruptly, and Phil only has a moment to wonder what Loki means before heat sears sudden and sharp through his hand where it touches the side of the laptop, electricity darting under his skin. He draws his hand back quickly, mouth clamped shut around a hiss of pain. Drawing his lost focus back, he breathes out slowly to control his frustration.

//then it releases energy in a way quite dangerous to you mortals.//

“So I see,” Phil says bitterly, rubbing the tingling skin of his thumb against his palm.

He eases his other hand away from the laptop, caught off guard when a second jolt of static arcs out to burn across his fingers. This time he swears under his breath, fist tightening and rising minutely, just short of slamming against the table. It’s getting harder to keep calm, and the panicked sound of Barton’s breathing in the background isn’t helping.

//You see, magic can operate on a similar principle. Two pieces, acting separately upon a being not meant to contain the energy, will only damage it further when they strike. But if they were properly unified, there would be no further danger.//

“Is there a point to this lecture, or were you just planning to electrocute me some more?” Phil asks, smoothing his tingling hands together. “Any more of this and I think I’m going to go—"

The realization dawns on him, and if he could properly move his hands, he’d be rubbing at his forehead in irritation at himself for not catching on sooner.

"—numb," Phil finishes, already picturing Loki's smug satisfaction. He sighs. "Is that what this is about? Barton's condition?"

//Surely you didn't think I was just being cruel, Agent Coulson. Do you see the purpose of our little conversation yet?//

"Well, you were being condescending about magic for a while," Phil says with barely contained annoyance, still rubbing at his hand. "So I assume this is your way of telling me that Barton's condition is an issue of magic."

//Powerful magic, yes. A greater force of energy than this caged lightning could ever muster, and certainly a greater force than a mortal is meant to contain.//

“And why would you come to tell me about it?" Phil asks, raising an eyebrow.

//As I said before, unconnected parts are a danger. But if you happened to have one of those halves in your possession, and allowed me to join it with its brother to form the true artifact, the energy could be drawn safely away.//

"You wouldn't help us without a price."

//A small one. Merely the rebuilt artifact itself.//

“You want me to give you what I can only assume is a weapon,” says Phil slowly. “So that you can restore it to working order and take it with you.”

//As I said. A small price to pay. I wonder, Agent Coulson, have you considered the price of refusal?//

"There is no 'refusal' here. There's nothing to talk about," Phil says, leaning back in his chair. "SHIELD Agents don't negotiate, Loki."

Phil waits for a reply, but the keyboard sits completely still, the screen untouched by any new text. Seconds trickle by. Phil starts to wonder if Loki has left, until the faintest alarm starts ringing in the back of his mind.

He stands quickly from his chair, steps back from the table on instinct, and he’s barely a few feet away when the laptop makes a loud popping sound; sparks light the ports along one side and the screen flickers out to solid black.

Smoke rises from the keyboard with the last few flickers from inside the case, and the growing burning smell finally registers as what made Phil jump from his seat.

Phil heads to the kitchen for an evidence bag to put the laptop in, contemplating his filing losses and when last he made a backup to the secure server. Figures Loki wanted to take one last shot at his sense of structure before the night was up.

He's barely turned his back on the laptop when the processor whirrs suddenly to life, hard drive clicking and protesting. Reluctantly Phil looks over his shoulder, and when he does, the screen’s backlight burns to life again, every dead pixel lit unnaturally green.

Instead of smoke, there’s a smell like ozone, a chill in the air that creeps into Phil’s skin and pushes an ache into his body. He braces a hand on the kitchen counter and closes his eyes to keep his calm, but his eyelids are too heavy and his thoughts wash out all at once.

When he opens his eyes again, the walls of his apartment are gone, replaced with an endless rolling stretch of dark stormclouds.

The rain weighs him down onto the grass, the smell of wet earth dizzyingly heavy around him. When he tries to breathe, the rainwater pours in, swelling copper-tinged to the corners of his mouth. He chokes, spasms on the ground.

His muscles are burning from some past exertion and there’s no way to turn over. Weakly, he coughs to try to clear his airway, but it only opens his throat further for the flood of the rainwater, dense with blood as it swallows down or seeps into his lungs.

The storm bears down on him, thunder so close and loud he can feel it in his chest like a compression. It pushes him to try again. He strains up from the ground and it presses the back of his head and his neck into the bristles of the wet grass, jarring him with deep, sickening pain that drops him right back to the ground.

Distantly, he remembers a dizzying motion and a burst of heat and sound, but he doesn’t have time to recall the rest. His vision is blurring. He turns his head to look aside, staring at wide, dead eyes a few feet away, two unfamiliar bodies sprawled bloody on the grass.

There’s something he should be looking for now, but he doesn’t know what it is. When he turns his head again, the pain bursts at the base of his skull and knocks him into the dark, still gulping blood and water into his lungs.

Desperate, he gasps, and it’s all air this time.

His eyes blink wide at his apartment ceiling, shoulder pushing against a cabinet and the kitchen floor at his back.

Just remembering, he tells himself as he tries to slow his frantic breathing. He's breathing too fast, and so deeply that it starts to hurt, but he can't get enough air. Keep calm. He sits up with effort, wincing at an ache on the back of his skull. He rubs a hand over it, but brushes the scar on his neck, and the pain comes too close.

A dizzy feeling drags down into his stomach, scraping him raw. There's a warning heat in the back of his mouth, and then the taste of rainwater and blood surges unexpectedly back, caught in the corners of his teeth and clinging to his throat.

He wraps his arms around his stomach and doubles over on his knees on the floor, thickly coughing up his dinner onto the white tile.

Around him, there’s a static hum, a pulse of sound reverberating in his ears, and it carries the faintest breeze of ozone through the air like a low, breathy laugh.

+++

“Not worth it,” Barton says at the end of Phil's explanation, pulling the blanket closer around his shoulders where he sits on the floor. He hasn’t moved much since he woke up, except to shelter himself in the corner of the apartment, and he’s talked even less. Phil draws his own quilt tighter around his body, nodding.

“That’s what I thought you’d say.”

The thermostat says the apartment is at normal temperature and Loki has been gone half an hour, but they’re both still shivering. They seem to have separately decided to blame it on some lingering effect on the temperature.

Phil looks at his burned-out laptop on the table, suppressing a sigh.

“I should start writing up an off duty report for this,” he says. “SHIELD needs to increase security on the artifact we have in custody.” Barton nods mutely and curls his knees up, resting his arms between his legs and his body. He’s made himself small, tucked away out of every window’s line of sight.

Phil tries to think of the last time he saw Barton like this, but pushing around in his memory feels like running against a wall. He swears he can taste the rain again, and breathes slowly to will away the hinting nausea in his stomach.

“We can deal with Loki later when we're clear-headed,” Phil decides.

“Sure,” is all Barton says. He rests his head on his knees, cocoons himself in the blanket, and goes quiet. Phil almost wants to ask if he wants to talk about whatever nightmare Loki pushed on him, but considering his own, he's not sure he wants to know how bad Barton's was.

Phil lets himself eye the couch cushions for a moment, mourning his own lost sleep, then gets up and heads back to the table to work on the hardcopy report. Reaching out to close what’s left of the laptop, he remembers the shock and stops, flinches back without touching the screen. Frozen in the air, his fingers tremble, not at all from the cold.

He sits down in the chair, pressing the heels of his hands to the back of the laptop screen to close it, and closes his eyes. Slowly, patiently, he breathes, until some semblance of his former calm settles into place.

As much as Phil wants to blame his fragile nerves completely on Loki, he woke up shaking in Medical, and since then there have been times when he just shakes, and can't explain it.

Though, if he's being honest, he doesn't remember much about when he woke up; the earliest he can remember is the debriefing days later, hazy through the last of his painkillers, blinking heavily at Agent Sitwell and a psychologist on observation.

The ballistics report slid across the table to him, and both of them sat grim-faced as they watched him open it, scan down the page, sigh with the shame of being shot with his own gun. Then he read about the gunshot residue on the inside of Barton’s sleeves. He turned the page to the empty spaces of missing additional ballistics evidence, then to the statement from the retrieval team who found the two of them, the lack of other suspects or bodies anywhere in range.

That last thought cuts Phil’s reminiscing short. He was blindsided so soon by the pain and the nausea earlier, he nearly forgot—in the memory Loki dredged up, there were two strangers lying dead, something the retrieval team couldn't possibly have missed. In the retrieval team's report and what little Phil remembered until tonight, it was only the two of them in the field.

Phil turns the contradiction over in his head, feeling around the blank spots in his memory for anything else to fill in until the storm’s chill starts seeping in again.

He abandons the problem for the paperwork he brought home, pushing himself into work.

+++

In the morning, Phil makes actual, drinkable coffee, and Barton slumps over the counter to watch the drip. Phil leans against the cabinets, afraid he might fall asleep if he sits down again.

"I should pack a bag," Phil says absently to the ceiling. Barton hums, but doesn't lift his head from the countertop.

"For what?"

"The apartment's been compromised." Phil takes the barely-started pot from the coffee machine and pours the first cup, setting it down next to Barton's hand. "I'd rather not give Loki an excuse for more property damage. Should stay at the office for a while."

"They could put you up in the Avengers Mansion," Barton says. He hooks two bandaged fingers around the handle of the coffee mug. "But SHIELD would ask questions." Which is the other problem.

"SHIELD's also going to have questions when we tell them they need to increase security on Hazard Lab 7. Loki could make a move to take the orb on his own."

"Yeah," Barton says. He hesitates. "I guess you have to report all this?"

"They'll probably put your pain issue on the backburner until we can get a metaphysics consultant or it fixes itself," Phil says. He pulls the coffee pot again, pouring a cup for himself. "Could be a while before you're back to work."

"Might be longer than you think," Barton says quietly.

Phil gives him a questioning look. Barton props himself up on his elbows and wraps his shands around the coffee mug, thumbing the rim. He breathes out slowly, voice low when he speaks again.

"Coulson, what do you think the psych staff is gonna say when I walk in and tell them when this started?" It's not a question. The skin pulls tight over his knuckles, fingers gripping the mug. "Loki or magic or not, they'll at least consider that it's some kind of mental thing."

Phil can't find an argument against it; the less ethical among the psychology staff have always jumped at any chance to keep themselves relevant when they run out of post-traumatic junior agents to counsel.

"They're one good reason away from putting me on indefinite leave and throwing me into lockdown," Barton says, shaking his head.

"You think they'll flag you as a security risk," Phil guesses. "Danger to yourself or someone else." Barton lifts his coffee mug to cover his mouth, voice muffled against the ceramic.

"Wouldn't be the first time."

Phil studies his coffee to keep from looking at Barton's face, and nods slowly.

It was Phil's reports the psychology staff pulled when the board wanted their recommendation on Barton's temporary suspension, pending the results of the investigation of the botched assignment in Manitoba. They pored over hundreds of casefiles, most containing at least one note about Barton's recklessness, his impulsive behavior, his survival and ultimately the missions' successes hinging on only his deepest-rooted self preservation instincts.

Or maybe, Phil thinks with static creeping at his neck, Barton was referring to the reason he was under investigation at all.

"I'll wait to report on recent events until we have more information," Phil says, cutting off that discussion at the knees. "Loki had to know what our response would be. His coming here at all might have been a diversionary tactic like the frost giants in New York. We shouldn't ring the alarm here if he's setting a fire somewhere else."

"So we can just... let this drop?" Barton asks, quietly hopeful. "Pretend I was never in your office at all?"

"Can't imagine why you'd ever come to my office of your own free will," Phil says mildly, playing along. "Haven't seen you since you dropped off your paperwork."

Barton's mouth twitches, very nearly hinting at a smile, and the worry in his eyes softens. For a moment, Phil is afraid Barton might say something serious.

Instead, Barton gives him a weak half-smile and says: "Go pack your bag, Coulson." He nods down the hall to Phil's room and takes his coffee to the couch, walking away.

And there's the out, just like all the other quick escapes Barton's been making for the past two months.

Not that Phil minds. He's more than happy to pretend that none of this happened, that he knows nothing about Barton's nervous system or the balance of magic, that Barton hasn't met his eyes or said a word to him that wasn't rooted in work. They can pretend they're as professionally distant as ever.

Except there's a tingle in Phil's wrist in the spots where Barton's fingers caught around it, and a ghost of sound in Phil's ears from Barton sighing like a condemned man, about to trust Phil with something he had every reason not to.

Phil sits down on the bed next to his half-packed bag and drops back, staring up at the ceiling and breathing out slowly. This is distance, and distance is good. This is what Phil wants.

He closes his own fingers around his wrist, and tries to forget.

+++

The drive back to SHIELD is as quiet as the trip home the night before. When Barton tips his head to rest against the window, staring listlessly at the passing scenery, Phil finally places exactly why this is so disorienting.

In the old days, there were rare occasions when Barton would walk away from a rough assignment quiet, brooding. But those moods wouldn't last long; any case bad enough to wear through Barton always left Phil just as beaten-down, and Barton has never had any patience for other people's misery.

The moment Phil let too heavy a sigh slip, Barton would do something ridiculous to overcompensate, like tell knock-knock jokes for twenty minutes without stopping, or turn on the radio and sing along to ABBA at the top of his lungs, until Phil couldn't even be morose anymore, too focused on keeping his face straight or trying, half-heartedly, to strangle him.

The strangest realization of the drive, though, is the twitch of Phil's fingers away from the wheel, towards the radio, itching to turn something on that might pull some reaction from Barton. He presses his hands tight to the wheel and focuses on the thought of the paperwork waiting in his office.

Pulling up at SHIELD, they're cautious of any suspicious looks; the rumor mill would never stop if it got around that they drove in together. Barton opens the car door to leave first, and Phil speaks up before he does.

"You prepped for your eval?" Phil asks, looking through his bag of things from the apartment to distract himself from what he doesn't expect will be an honest answer.

"Why wouldn't I be?" Barton asks grimly, and steps out without another word, closing the car door and heading towards the parking lot security check.

Just like that, he's out of sight, and Phil accordingly puts him out of mind. He'll manage through the eval even with Facchino sitting in; one of Barton's many talents is weaseling his way out from under scrutiny, whether at enemy hands or across a table from the head of SHIELD Psychiatric. And how Barton does in the eval isn't Phil's problem anyway.

The story is that they haven't spoken or seen each other since Barton dropped off his paperwork, and there's nothing to do now but play along and forget about it.

As planned, after fifteen minutes of delay, Phil leaves the car and goes through security, then starts the walk to his office.

The hallways are bustling with agents, arms full of paper and faces pulled distastefully around their cups of coffee. Some glance up from their reports when Phil passes, others flick their eyes over their shoulders. A few conversations drop to whisper-volume.

Phil figured this ridiculousness would be over after two months, but he's found that the enormity and importance of SHIELD's work apparently doesn't preclude workplace gossip.

He unlocks and opens his office to find his desk waiting for him just as he left it, covered with paperwork Barton sorted while Phil slept, and still smudged in one corner with Barton's blood.

+++

Agent Woo stops by around noon looking for consultation on a case, and Phil gladly takes the opportunity to get out of his office. He doesn't even care that Woo is leading him straight to the main complex's cafeteria, surrounded by chatty agents and too much noise. Woo is at least courteous enough to put them in a table in the corner, with Phil's back to the wall.

The casefile sits between them on the table, something about a possible tertiary Hammer drone site he's been assigned to monitor, complicated by the fact that it's deeply entrenched in a civilian area full of language barriers. Phil half-listens, mostly staring at his coffee and hoping it might soak into his brain if he looks at it hard enough.

A yelp of laughter from a nearby table catches Phil's attention, two junior agents from someone else's squad.

"You're kidding," one junior says to the other, his voice hushed. "Then what?"

"Well, he comes up to me—"

"And we can't confirm which residences are empty," Woo says across the table from Phil. Phil blinks back to the file. "Some of them might have squatters, or people living there undocumented. Paying under the table isn't unusual in that neighborhood."

"So if we go in guns blazing based on official records, we run the risk of heavy civilian casualties," Phil says, nodding. At the other table, the second junior agent's voice rises again.

"So I'm like, 'hey, I believe you and all, but if you did do it, don't miss next time!' And I'm kinda joshing, right?" The second junior leans in closer, drops his voice to a hiss. "But he goes fucking ballistic—"

"And the businesses in the area aren't exactly trusting of big government," Woo points out. "Especially not anything as quiet as SHIELD."

"Do we have any personnel who can mediate?" Phil tries to tune out the juniors at the next table, pulled by another burst of laughter.

"After he shoved me out I saw him go picking up the pieces of the mug off the floor," the junior agent says, laughing. "Like, you just threw that at my fucking face, dude!"

"Who does that?" the other junior says, snickering.

"Even if we can evacuate all the civilians successfully, there's still the matter of property damage," says Woo.

"We can advise civilians to clear out irreplaceable belongings ahead of time," Phil says.

"But how much preparation can we do before we start drawing attention?" Woo points out. "There might be someone else at the switch, even with Hammer in custody."

"And before he shoved me out of the room," the junior says at the next table, "He was like: 'this is a warning. I catch you talking like that about a senior agent again, you're gonna regret it.'" The junior agents stand from their table, walking away laughing. "I know, man. Total psycho."

"Our only other option," Phil says, relieved to have the distraction gone, "Is cutting a deal with Hammer himself to remotely disable any drones in the bunker. But we have to worry about him misleading us."

"I can be persuasive," Woo says, offhandedly cracking knuckles in one hand. Phil barely smiles.

"I'm sure. You're not Justin Hammer's biggest fan," he says. Woo smirks.

"Obadiah Stane is damn lucky he died before I could get my hands on him," he says darkly. Phil is inclined to agree. All it took for Woo to push a few ethical boundaries in the Hammer interrogation was a "heartless" joke at Stark's expense. Phil would hate to see Woo in a room with anyone who'd done worse.

Something catches in the back of Phil's memory, drawing back the conversation from the next table over. A senior agent, a "total psycho", accusations. Someone angry on someone else's behalf. Phil frowns, calling up the image of a broken coffee mug, pieces gathered in someone's palm.

"I cut my hand—dropped a coffee mug and it broke."

Phil stands suddenly from the table, mentally mapping the complex and glancing at the cafeteria exits.

"We'll need to pick up this consult later," Phil says. "I just realized I have another appointment."

"Oh, sure—let me know if you get any ideas about the Hammer bunker," Woo calls after him. Phil is halfway out the nearest door, aiming himself down the most direct route to SHIELD Medical.

+++

The staffers at the nurse's station give him dirty looks all the way in, but Phil doesn't have any patience for their grudges.

Deciding to be discreet, he picks out the one face that doesn't seem to recognize him, steals a discarded slip of paper, and quickly writes: Can you confirm observation protocols for evaluation room 3 current session. Ignoring a glare immediately to his right, he slides it across the counter and holds up his badge.

She pulls the records, and he waits while she mouses through. The psych staff may have their doubts about Phil, but his record is strong and at the very least, Facchino or the staff coordinator might have marked him for access to records and observation access.

After a minute, the staffer raises her eyebrows, then flips the paper over, scribbles a message, and slides it back to him. There's a voluntary release of information on file for you. He frowns, but takes the paper and nods his thanks.

A voluntary release. Barton would have had to do that himself, and the psych staff could give Phil the records even without making Barton sign one, if they knew which privacy statutes to bend, and Phil knows they do. This was all Barton.

Phil tries to puzzle it out, walking down the hall and feeling too many pairs of eyes on his scar, like static coiling around his neck.

Despite everything that's happened since the Manitoba case, the rank and file of the Medical staff have always adored Barton. They sneak contraband onto his meal trays, touch his arms appreciatively when they're putting IVs, and for the past year, someone in control of the intake forms has been subtly dotting the "i" in his first name with a heart.

In the past two months, with Phil's and Barton's rumors passing through the complex with all the discretion of racing freight trains, a schism formed in the staff's loyalties, and Medical's position was a foregone conclusion. Not enough that Phil is nervous, exactly, but he folds his arms closer to his body as he walks down the corridor, just in case someone with a syringe is feeling impulsive.

He reaches the observation room and steps silently in, trying not to register anything stronger than mild disapproval when he meets eyes with the Psychiatric director. Thankfully he's more interested in the eval than in Phil.

On the other side of the one-way mirror, Barton slouches back in his chair, scowling across the table at Facchino. The coordinator for the counseling staff stands in the corner, watching the conversation with a soft, worried expression.

"So I see," Facchino is saying. "It was your first mission in the field since the suspension period ended, if I'm not mistaken."

"Yeah." Barton folds his arms across his front, tips his head over the back of the chair lazily. "Went pretty well." Facchino leans on the table, watching him curiously.

"It went 'pretty well', you think?" he asks. "How would you factor your injury into that judgment?"

"It happens," Barton says without looking down from the ceiling.

"Your files would confirm that," Facchino says. "It happens rather often, I'd say. Particularly when you're on assignment with Agent Coulson."

Barton's shoulders tense and he tips forward in the chair, fixing a hard glare on Facchino.

"Look, if you guys want to know anything about Coulson, put him in an eval room," Barton says. "Unless you got a diagnosis in that big book of DSM Whatever that has his name in it, I'm pretty sure there's something better you could ask me about."

"I understand you've spoken at length about Agent Coulson already," Facchino says carefully. "But my concern is that if your communication with Agent Coulson was... strained, during this operation, it may have affected your safety."

"Can you drop the therapist bullshit and just talk?" Barton asks.

Facchino folds his hands on his clipboard and looks squarely at Barton.

"Has there ever been an assignment when Agent Coulson jeopardized your safety?"

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Barton mutters.

"That wasn't an answer," Facchino says.

"You're really gonna do this?"

"Is there a reason you're avoiding this question?" Facchino asks, and Barton's bandaged fingers tighten into a fist on the table.

"No," Barton says, slow and measured. "The answer to that question is 'no', Coulson's never put me in any kind of danger."

"What about his reports?"

"What about his reports?" Barton asks.

"Well, I think they support your judgment," Facchino says, taking a folder from his briefcase. He slides it to Barton, who just raises an eyebrow. "Agent Coulson doesn't think he puts you in danger, either. He's consistently said you do a fine job of it yourself."

"I've read these already," Barton says, shrugging.

"This is an exception, however," Facchino says, turning to a later page in the folder and tapping one of the fields with his pen. "I would think this latest incident in the Mojave was typical of your pattern, but Agent Coulson disagreed."

Barton rolls his eyes, but looks down at the folder to where Facchino is pointing. He stares at it for a moment, then frowns.

"'Appropriate tactical risk'?" Barton reads aloud, voice wandering off at the end.

"I'm curious," Facchino says, leaning on the table. "Did you bring up the reports with Agent Coulson before this mission?"

"We talked about the details with Stark and Fury in the briefing," Barton says. "Same as always."

"Have you ever approached Agent Coulson about his reports?" Facchino asks. "Or the way he characterizes your behavior during field operations?"

"No," Barton says. "Look, I'm as surprised as you about this," he says, pointing to the open page. "Even I think my stunt with the laser ball was a shit idea."

"Have you ever felt like your position was threatened or your reputation harmed by Agent Coulson's views on your behavior?"

"No," Barton repeats, stronger this time, narrowing his eyes.

"Do you feel some resentment towards Agent Coulson?"

Barton stands and his chair slips backward, falling heavily onto the tile floor just as Barton's fist slams down onto the table, his jaw tight and his breathing uneven. Facchino doesn't so much as blink even as Barton leans in dangerously close.

"When are you guys going to fucking drop this?" Barton growls through his teeth. Facchino looks camly back at him as he asks the next question, slow and deliberate.

"Have you ever wanted to harm Agent Coulson?"

Barton's free hand is moving already, and his bandaged fist hits Facchino's jaw just as every phone in the complex goes off at once.

Phil pulls out his cell and answers without taking his eyes off the eval room.

"This is an all hands on deck for all staff in the main SHIELD complex," says the recording playing in Phil's ear.

The director of Psychiatric is already running in to where Facchino has fallen against the wall, held up by the staff coordinator's arm under his shoulder.

"All field personnel are to report to designated areas for possible deployment—"

Barton stumbles back from the table, breathing fast and glancing at the open door to the observation room.

"—all non-field personnel are to await further orders—"

"You'll be suspended, Barton!" the Psychiatric director barks. "Assaulting civilian aid personnel is ten days, minimum!"

"Yeah, whatever." Barton shakes out his bandaged hand, eyeing the door again. Phil starts walking for the opposite exit for plausible deniability.

"—and all senior staff are to report to standard briefing areas—"

If he leaves now, then Barton won't see him, and they can pretend Phil never heard about Barton sticking up for him and Barton never saw Phil's signature on a form trying to protect him.

"—to await transmission from Director Fury and immediate assignment—"

They can pretend that Barton never left his evals open for Phil, and that Phil never took him up on it.

"—to the highest priority of several co-occurring threats."

There are no eyes on Phil as he leaves Medical in the ensuing rush, and Phil isn't sure he'd notice even if there were. Co-occurring threats, the message said. He isn't sure how many that means, but if they've put out the full alert, it's going to be a struggle regardless.

In the hall between Medical and the nearest briefing room, someone says "frost giants", and Phil swears under his breath, hidden in the low roar of the footsteps and conversation in the corridor.

+++

Allocating personnel to the frost giants is a no-brainer; Thor, Banner, and Rogers are sent out as the heavy-hitters, with a few supervisory agents keeping tabs on the situation.

Woo takes Sitwell, Hill, and several sets of junior agents to handle the civilian side of the tertiary Hammer bunker, with Barton as backup.

Natasha, Stark, and Phil are sent to handle whatever actually surfaces from the bunker. Stark promises to hang back if the post-concussion syndrome kicks up again, and R&D loads Natasha and Phil up with as many electrical disrupting charges and explosives as they can carry without impeding their movement.

Phil takes an extra magazine of ammunition and tries not to think too hard about the civilian areas above the bunker. He and Natasha and Stark can keep them safe, and Barton won't need to shoot anything; as far as Phil knows, they sent him with a bare minimum of equipment.

There's a faint hope in the back of Phil's mind that because Hammer's bunker was a known threat before the frost giants showed up, it can't be Loki doubling up on them.

But that brings its own concern; if the Hammer bunker isn't the issue, he has to wonder what the frost giants are distracting from.

+++

Phil throws another disrupting charge down the hall and listens for the drone to fall. He counts backward from three, two, one, and there's a popping sound, static crackling through the wiring, then an impact with the floor.

Natasha darts around the corner with a light explosive charge in hand, plastic thumping onto metal and a soft beep, and she's back around a second later to pull Phil off in the opposite direction. The blast sends shrapnel flying out into their hall, clattering on the bunker's metal walls and down the concrete floor at their heels.

"Stark," Phil says into the comm at his wrist, "Are you reading any more drones within range of our position?"

"Negative," Stark says, repulsor fire underlaying his voice. "Five more in the complex. I'm handling one through three right now and number four is the one you clipped with the disruptor earlier, it's walking into walls in the B-sector."

"How about the fifth one?" Natasha asks. There's static on the other end, a creak of metal, a crash. It's a few long seconds before the reply comes, warped and intermittent.

"Headed—the surface—A-sect—ould come and give m—hand—much appreciated."

"Go help Stark with one through three," Phil says, nodding Natasha deeper into the bunker. "I'll see if I can stop the one in the A-sector from getting topside." She nods.

"Gear," she says, holding out her hand. He takes off all but two of his disruptors and one heavy explosive charge, and hands them over, as well as his extra clip.

"Keep him alive," Phil advises, "Or Agent Woo might take a shot at you when you get out."

"Tell him I'll bring his boyfriend out in one piece," Natasha says, smirking, and straps on the extra supplies. "And keep yourself alive. I don't want any arrows in my back."

Phil nods hesitantly, thinking of Barton's hurled coffee mug and the bruise forming on Facchino's jaw, and heads off towards the A-sector without another word. He hears her footsteps retreat towards Stark's position, and quickens his own pace towards the surface corridor.

When he catches up to the drone, it's nearly to the empty cut across the floor, the track for open blast doors leading out. Phil makes a run for the control panel nearby, but it's been locked out, and he doesn't have time to attempt an override. He draws a disruptor and takes aim at drone lumbering away towards the light.

His throw falls just short, and the disruptor sparks, the effect field barely catching the drone's leg; it stops cold, turns, raises one of its gauntlets, barrels lighting and a high-pitched hum carrying down the hall. Phil stays still just long enough to draw the information he needs: distance from the exit, distance from his position, a missing piece of plating on the drone's torso.

Phil throws himself behind the nearest structure and rolls away, makes himself small, as the bullets rattle across the floor and the wall behind him. When the onslaught stops, he hears metal creaking and more heavy steps, advancing on his position instead of heading for the exit. He pulls out his last disruptor.

When the steps get close enough, he flicks the disruptor out, sends it skittering across the floor to the drone's position, but there's a whirring sound, another heavy step, and a crunch that doesn't bode well at all for Phil.

The next step comes closer, and Phil has enough dim hope to try counting back from three, two, one, but no disruptor burst. The only thing standing between the drone and him, and by extension the outside world of still-evacuating civilians, is an explosive charge and Phil's gun.

Phil has handled worse with less.

He puts his back to the wall and sidles towards the edge, sidearm drawn. He gauges the distance and where he'll need to aim, then whips around the corner, firing a shot into the exposed wiring behind the missing armor plate. The drone's movements stutter, giving Phil his opening to run past, putting himself between the drone and the hall to the outdoors.

Phil touches the explosive charge at his belt, thumbs the release without discharging it, considering his options now that he's put himself here. The heavy charge was sent along so they could blow any inactive drones they found, wholesale, not hit a small space. This hall is going to swallow a lot of force and heat, and there's nowhere in the room that's going to give him nearly enough cover.

Far behind him, outside and above, Phil can hear shouting, muffled footsteps. Hammer may have planned the entrance to be as deeply entrenched in the center of the neighborhood as possible, as impossible as it's been for them to get civilians clear.

The drone turns again, slightly more stilted in its movements, and Phil's hand is back to the trigger. He empties his clip into the hole in the drone's armor, walking slowly backwards to see how far from the blast he can put himself.

Slowed but undeterred, the drone raises one gauntlet from its side, twitching upward like the hand of a clock. Phil holsters his gun and removes the explosive from his belt with one hand, raising his comm with the other.

"Maintain positions and stay away from the bunker entrance," he warns across the open channel. "Heavy blast radius warning, standby."

If the drone gets any closer to the exit tunnel, there's nothing to stop it from firing straight up into the city street, and Phil has to set the charge before he's too bullet-riddled to move. He flicks the wrist-comm to Natasha's frequency.

"Borrow some armor plating when you're done with the drones, Natasha," Phil says into his comm, smiling wryly. "You might have an arrow coming your way when you step out."

"Coulson, what are—" Natasha asks. Phil closes out the frequency before she can finish.

He taps the timer button on the explosive without starting it, ruling out option after option. Running any further back will shorten his throw and might risk the blast reaching the surface. There's no guarantee of consistently dodging the gauntlet's fire, the way the shots scatter. His thumb brushes the button to set the charge.

There's a burst of white in the right edge of his vision, then a crackling green light wrapping around the drone, condensing into its chest plating and vanishing into the circuitry. The drone goes stone-still, then gives a sudden violent spasm and falls in pieces to the floor.

A blast door slams shut inches from Phil's face, and a few feet behind him, another closes. Phil can feel eyes on him, and turns, finding Loki leaning against the other blast door.

"Taking strategy lessons from Hawkeye, are we?" Loki asks. Phil holds up the heavy explosive, tapping the timer out and setting it for instant detonation if triggered.

"If you think I won't blow us both to hell right now, you're sorely mistaken," Phil says, tightening his hold on the charge, rubbing a trigger-callus against the detonation button. Loki smiles.

He snaps his fingers, and the charge fizzles out, falling from Phil's hand in clumps of wiring and C4. Phil sighs and puts his back to the door, glancing at the keypad flashing OVERRIDE nearby. Loki doesn't want him going anywhere.

"My, my, Agent Coulson," Loki sighs, shaking his head. "I was afraid you might be slipping, but a willingness to die so easily... I must admit, I'm surprised."

"What do you want?" Phil asks, brushing dust from the floor off his suit.

"Merely lending a hand. I still have use for you, after all," says Loki, his unblinking stare pinned to Phil's eyes. "My little proposal, remember?"

"I told you already, Loki," Phil says, leaning back against the blast door. "SHIELD agents don't negotiate."

To his surprise, Loki just laughs, and says: "So I've heard."

The air goes to static in front of Phil’s eyes, and with a lingering trace of green where his eyes were, Loki vanishes.

The blast door overrides cancel out, metal sheets creaking open on either side of Phil. He picks up the fallen hunk of C4 from the floor, then raises his comm, opening the channel again without missing a beat. God, he's sick of Loki.

"Zero out that blast warning, all personnel," Phil says, then switches to Natasha again. "Drone Five had a missing plate over what must have been a failsafe. Total mechanical failure. What's the status of the other targets?"

"One through four neutralized. And it's a good thing you're alive," Natasha says deadly low across the frequency, "Because I'm looking forward to killing you myself, arrows or not."

"Told you that you'd want that armor plating," Phil says dryly.

The comm cuts off with an angry static sound, and Phil heads up the ramp and out of the bunker. He's not thinking about Loki, or Manitoba, or the C4 in his hand betraying just how close he came to splattering himself on the bunker walls.

He's thinking, footsteps dragging and eyelids heavy, that all he wants to do right now is sleep.

+++

Sitting down at his desk again, Phil finally sends up the white flag.

The claims to be sorted go out to his juniors, all of them buzzing with excitement and trading stories they've heard secondhand about the fight with the frost giants. The headline for the night is something about Sitwell's squad being sprayed with pieces of one, sent through decontamination and a few into exploratory surgery, and forcing a whole system offline somewhere between security and Medical.

Phil isn't listening closely, too busy making stacks of today's low-priority paperwork. When he hands those out, the juniors finally start to scowl at him.

Just this once, Phil puts on his most intimidating look and cocks his head to put his scar just a bit more under the light, and they scurry away in a pack, hugging piles of forms to their chests and mumbling about having the forms on his desk by morning.

It's a testament to Phil's exhaustion that he almost, just slightly, enjoyed the spectacle.

With his office quiet again, Phil slouches into his chair, staring up at the ceiling tiles. It's been a long day—a long week, and he'd honestly like nothing more than to go home to his bed. But he's had enough of Loki these past 24 hours; he’d rather not put himself anywhere outside the range of the extradimensional particle scanners and have something from Jotunheim sneak up on him without several alarms going off first.

He stands to go curl up the couch on the opposite side of his office, halfway across the room and tiredly rubbing his eyes, when the door swings open.

It bangs against the bookshelf nearby, slams shut a second later, and Phil turns blearily to look, half-expecting Nick Fury to have blown into his office ready to read him the riot act for scaring another junior agent out of their career path.

Instead, he sees Barton, barely registering it before there's a wall at his back and a heavy hand holding him against it, bandaged fingertips digging into his chest through his shirt.

"Barton," Phil says mildly in greeting, blinking at him. Barton keeps him pinned, his mouth shut in a tight line, his eyes slightly wide.

"Natasha said—" Barton stops, and he swallows before he speaks again. "Did you try to kamikaze a Hammer drone today?"

"I may have found myself in a tight space with a heavy explosive and a drone," Phil says, carefully picking his way through the sentence. "Based on the risk to civilians—"

"Coulson," he says firmly, and it stops Phil's excuse in its tracks, calls something back to him, like his feet are finally back on the ground.

"I thought we agreed you weren't in my office," Phil says, narrowing his eyes.

"Yeah, that was before you tried to suicide bomb a robot," growls Barton, shoving him harder against the wall. "What the hell were you thinking?"

The frustration sparks through Phil's body like a live wire, amplified by the pressure of Barton's hand like a weight of guilt, like he has any right. Barton doesn't get to just wander into Phil's office and lecture him. Not when he's been running in and then telling Phil to forget everything, and especially not about this, after all the times he's almost gotten himself killed in the field.

"Let go," Phil warns. He lays a hand on Barton's wrist. "Or I'll make you, and I don't think you're ready to back this up unless you really do have some resentment you need to work out."

The pressure lifts instantly from Phil's chest. Eyes widening, Barton takes a sudden step back, pushing his hands into his pockets and dropping his head to look at the floor.

"I wasn't..." Barton mumbles, but the rest of the thought seems to get away from him. He glances at the door over his shoulder, like he’s looking for another escape, and something in Phil snaps.

If Barton wants to run so badly, Phil will let him, but he’s tired of this push and pull. And after two months of silence, and five days of being led around by "work is work" and pulled in again, five days of being haunted by Loki's condescending smile—right now, Phil is just done.

"Get out of my office," Phil says, nodding to the door without looking at Barton again.

"Coulson," Barton tries, unsteady.

Phil turns and walks to his desk, dropping into his chair.

"I said, get out."

Barton breathes in again like he's going to say something, but all he does is nod slowly in the periphery of Phil's vision, crossing the room to the door. The doorknob turns with a slow, hesitating creak, and it reminds Phil of his own hand dropping away from the knob, gauze on his wrist.

Phil kneads at his forehead with his fingertips to push the thought out, focuses on the page where he's writing total mechanical failure.

When he glances up a moment later, the office is empty again.

+++

It's two in the morning when Phil's office door opens and shuts again, and Phil rolls over on the couch to put his back to the door, pretending he's been able to sleep at all.

"Barton, for the last time—"

"Guess again," says a familiar voice, and Phil sits bolt upright, finding a dark suit and bright green eyes, a slim figure leaning on his desk. "I didn't know you startled so easily, Agent Coulson," Loki says, smirking. “Still on edge, are we?"

Phil isn't sure whether to be relieved that he's finally fallen asleep, or disappointed that he can't get a moment's peace even when he's dreaming.

"Get out of my head," Phil sighs, rubbing at the dark circles under his eyes.

"I'm no illusion," Loki assures him. "You're already awake."

"We have sensors. You couldn't get in without the alarms going off all the way here."

"Normally, yes," Loki says. "But today my brothers came to your complex in pieces, clinging to your little 'junior agents', tucked into pockets and embedded in skin. They couldn't have the warning trumpets blaring at some poor child with a piece of Jotunheim drifting in his blood."

Had to take the whole system down, Phil remembers one of the juniors saying when he handed out the claims.

They were talking about the extradimensional particle scanners.

The frost giants weren’t a diversion at all.

"So you're actually here," Phil says, looking him up and down. He sees no sign of the orb from the desert anywhere on Loki's person. "Why are you talking to me? Why not just go take what you came here for?"

"Because I'm not here to take the desert stone in hand," Loki says, tracing the smudge of Barton's blood on the corner of the desk, red fading away under his touch and erasing the last traces of Barton from the office. Something about it unsettles Phil, makes him want to grab Loki's wrist and stop him. "If that was all I wanted, would I have dropped it in the desert?"

"So you wanted it here?" Phil asks, voice dull, unable to even muster frustration. "Is it going to hit the whole complex with magic? Explode?"

"No. I do intend to see the desert stone removed from this building. But first, I think we should take a walk down the hall." Phil stares skeptically back. "Or I could crawl into your skin and walk us there myself," Loki says, leaning off his hip's perch on Phil's desk.

"I'll walk," Phil says, tiredly raising a hand to stop Loki. As long as Loki is offering, he’ll take what leeway he can get. "Where are we going?"

"Out the door," Loki says, with a graceful sweep of his arm.

Phil pushes up onto his feet, walks to the door. He swears he can hear something distant behind him, white noise with a static beneath it falling into a rhythm, like the patter of rain. He opens the door and steps out into the hall; the door closes behind him, untouched.

Walk, Loki says, disembodied sound reverberating around him. A breeze of ozone-tinged air wafts over his shoulder, and Phil can taste the rain again. Take the stairway to your right. Down.

Phil descends the stairs, cold air coiling around his neck, pressure against his skin like a current of wind.

You have such hard eyes. So defiant, for a mortal. The air chills past the point of his spine, pins down against his pulse, cutting off the circulation, dizzying him. Is it because you've faced down death so closely? The cold presses over the scar for emphasis, as forceful as the current on his pulse, and it makes him stumble, knees wavering near the bottom of the flight of stairs.

He loses his footing and falls down the last three, managing to put his arms up to guard his head before he hits the floor. Rolling on impact, he slams shoulder-first into the wall, and Loki laughs at the back of his neck.

Watch your step, Agent Coulson, he cautions, a smile in his voice.

Phil forces his elbows under him, then his knees, and struggles up. He won't let Loki see him unnerved. Breathing steadily, he opens the door at the bottom of the stairwell and steps out into the hall.

Turn left, Loki instructs.

Phil turns, walks. He knows where this hallway leads; he's waiting for Loki to divert course. But they pass under the sign, and Phil doesn't look up at the bold letters reading SHIELD Training - Distance Range.

The cold tucks under Phil's chin again, slipping around his neck on either side, like the warning of hands about to choke.

Through the door.

Phil grips the handle of the door, hesitant.

Has Hawkeye been by to speak with you today? Did he seem frightened?

Phil says nothing.

And has he been running from you since the Mojave, Agent Coulson? As if there was something he wished to hide?

The handle turns, and Phil walks inside. He scans across the tops of the walled sections on the range, red lights all down the line except the last, lit green. Phil is beginning to hate green.

Reaching the last room, Barton's usual space, he nudges the handle and finds it locked.

You're angry, aren't you? Ordering him out. Sending him away. And stubborn little Hawkeye went without a word. Did you wonder why?

A chill rolls over the back of Phil's hand, into the lock, coaxing it to click inside. Phil opens the door.

Arrows lie scattered across the floor, a bow haphazardly fallen away to one corner, and sprawled on the floor among them is Barton. He's breathing fast through pale lips, his eyes red-rimmed and his pupils sharp, hands trembling violently against the floor.

Barton’s wide eyes meet Phil's and he makes a weak sound, gives a twitch that might be a shake of his head, as the door closes of its own accord behind Phil.

Two forces of fragmented, powerful magic sealed raging and warring within a fragile mortal body. You can't hear it, but it sings in him. It lashes out to escape, but all the blood and breathing holds it back. That can't last forever.

Solid again, Loki walks past Phil to where Barton lies. Loki barely nudges the toe of his boot against Barton's leg, speculative, and Barton yelps, arching up off the floor and trying to twist away. When he falls back to the floor, his mouth opens at the impact, but no sound comes. Phil knows what pain looks like in Barton's eyes, and he can't mistake it now.

“Now I'm going to ask you again to cooperate with me, just once more, and you will,” Loki says. “And do you know why ?”

He turns to Phil with a dead smile that doesn't touch his eyes, and Phil's back hits the door, cold air coiling at his throat. It holds him still, forcing him to look straight into Loki's eyes, as Loki speaks slowly, still smiling.

"Because Hawkeye is dying, Agent Coulson."

Everything stops.

+++

Phil breathes in thinly through the hold around his throat, watching Loki for a tell, any chance that he’s lying, but Loki doesn’t give an inch.

"How long does he have?" Phil grits out.

"Does it matter?" Loki asks, and Phil shuts his mouth against any answer he might have had. It doesn't. Loki's smile pushes up to reach his eyes, smug and satified. "I thought not."

Phil takes as steady a breath as he can manage. He tries to keep his eyes on Loki and away from Barton, tries to say what he's meant to say next—SHIELD agents don't negotiate—but the words stick in his throat and his eyes are already wandering, Barton's hand shaking against the floor in the corner of Phil's vision. Barton is supposed to be numb to pain, but the way he responded to contact with Loki, the look on his face that Phil doesn't dare let himself check again, showed nothing but hurt.

"Is he in pain?" Phil asks, just to be sure.

Loki laughs softly, pityingly, like Phil's just told an earnest but not quite funny joke.

"Agent Coulson," he says, "Is there any exchange of questions and answers to be had here that would convince you to let him die?"

Phil swallows against the pressure at his throat, and his eyes flick involuntarily to Barton, barely long enough to take in the trembling and the wide eyes. SHIELD agents don't negotiate, he tries to tell himself, but there's an urging in the back of his head saying, Could you look Barton in the eyes right now and say that?

It sends an unexpected rush of panic down Phil's spine, colder than the invisible noose around his neck, and he tries to seem sure of himself when he meets Loki's eyes.

"What do you want me to do?" Phil asks steadily.

"I have a simple task for you," says Loki, with a sweet smile to contrast what must be a massive lie. “You’re going to walk on your own two feet to where SHIELD is keeping the desert stone, pick it up with your own hands, and bring it safely back to your home."

Phil doesn't object that the labs won't let him walk out with it, that security will stop even him on the way to the stone, that he can't just take a specimen offsite without serious repercussions, because the grin on Loki's face says he knows exactly what Phil is walking into, what he's asking of Phil.

"And you'll use the artifact to fix him," Phil presumes, which is when the pressure at his throat centers in on his windpipe like a focused strike, tight and jarring, halting his breathing.

"After you've done what I asked,” Loki goes on with a reprimand in his tone, a falsely pleasant grin on his face, “I'll take the desert stone from your traitorous hands, and then you and I will talk further about Hawkeye's condition.”

So that’s how this is going to be. Phil was right that it wasn't about the stone at all, but there's no victory here. The desert stone was just another distraction, one Phil never even bothered to look into. He was so preoccupied with Barton's injury, on paperwork and psych evals, he never stopped to consider it. He barely even remembers the two days after the Mojave.

“What about Barton?” Phil is asking before he can stop himself, voice thready, managing the words through what little breath he's been able to take in.

“Oh, he’ll be present at our little meeting as well,” is all Loki says. The pressure at Phil's throat drifts off to let him breathe as Loki turns to Barton, strolling over to crouch beside him as he speaks. “In fact, I’ll be bringing him myself.”

Phil watches Loki press a hand against Barton’s forehead, and Barton draws in a sharp, painful-looking gasp, eyes closing tightly and body straining up off the floor in the instant before Loki vanishes. Teeth grit and hands clenching, Barton makes a pained sound; the tremors and the tension all weaken slowly, until he’s completely still.

After a moment's silence, his eyes open, and the irises’ usual blue-grey has been washed out with a bright cover of green. Phil already knows what this is, and he watches, frozen, as Barton pushes up from the floor. Barton turns his head to Phil with pinprick pupils and a cruel smile, rigored there unnaturally as he speaks.

“Stubborn, isn’t he?”

Phil’s stomach twists in revulsion. Barton is just a mortal to Loki, a prop. This is sick, it's wrong—but it's also completely out of Phil's control, he's miserably aware. He's in no position to say anything, so he swallows his anger, waiting as Barton—Loki—stands, brushing dust from his clothes. Barton wasn't dressed for shooting. White dress shirt, work slacks. He came here knowing he wouldn't be practicing at all.

Loki's motions are slightly disjointed, too heavy, muscles controlled by a brain not accustomed to them. Struggling to maintain his calm, Phil breathes while he still can, back pressed to the door. Loki smiles broadly, staring distantly up like he's listening for something, and then he laughs again.

“Oh, you should hear this,” Loki says with Barton’s voice, the cadence all wrong, the tone mismatched. “He’s like a child, Agent Coulson. Frightened, but kicking and screaming all the way. If you take too long bringing the stone, he may burn out his little mind from fighting.”

Phil says nothing as Loki steps towards him, footsteps smooth, posture sharp and positioned to take up space, to be seen. Barton always slouches, hide himself in plain sight, footsteps dragging just slightly from lack of effort, almost leisurely. Loki advances, stands in front of Phil in just the right way to look down on him, and this is wrong, this is a mockery. Barton intimidates when he has to, but he's never acted superior in his life.

Still, the posturing isn't the worst of it. The worst is what follows, the set jaw turning loose and voice curving in a paper-thin imitation of Barton’s lazy, friendly tone, saying: “Hey, Coulson. You uh, mind moving away from the door?”

Phil keeps his face impassive and takes a single step aside, trying to show Loki he's not cowed by all this, and hoping Barton still reads him as he stays outwardly calm. They'll fight their way out of this, one way or another. Work is work. Loki is work.

“And by the way, Coulson,” Loki mimics, pausing in the doorway. “Don’t take too long or bring anyone from SHIELD with you. Be a real shame if there was some kind of accident in your apartment.”

Loki pats the doorframe twice in a mock friendly gesture, then leaves the lane of the shooting range, door clicking shut behind him.

Phil is alone.

He rubs a hand over his face in frustration, then lets it fall, one loose fist thumping against the wall behind him. Clarity comes to him in a faint spark against everything else. He can't possibly do this. Loki's threats aside, he has to think of the bigger picture here; SHIELD, the collateral damage, the unknowns of Loki holding the artifact. Phil is supposed to be one of SHIELD's best. He's supposed to have integrity. He's supposed to protect SHIELD, and SHIELD's—he stops. SHIELD's what, honor? Pride?

It forces a laugh out of him, painful and choked, his windpipe's dull ache turning sharp in response. Because he could swear there was a time when he believed that, believed in SHIELD that way, and it seems so pointless now. Barton is dying. Phil doesn't know how soon or how horribly, and there's nothing he can do but trust Loki. And Phil is hesitating because he might besmirch SHIELD's honor.

He spends another moment laughing, shaking his head, running on two days without sleep and just slightly hysterical.

Phil lets that be his excuse when he opens the door to head for the labs, and he pretends it isn’t clear-headed premeditation when he grabs a tranquilizer gun and several refill cartridges on his way out of the range, mentally maps out the complex of the underground hazard labs, estimates the number of security personnel.

He keeps walking, heading for the onsite labs, and the more rational warnings try to fight in and tell him not to do this, the more a disjointed, disconnected part of his brain urges him on, sinking in until he can taste the rain clinging in the corners of his teeth again.

+++

Phil catches the last guard in the corridor carefully, easing him onto the floor with an arm under his shoulders. The guard's muscles slacken under the tranquilizer’s effects, limbs rubbery and unwieldy, and his head lolls back, his eyebrows knit in concern and no small amount of fear when he looks up at Phil.

“Sir?” he mumbles, glancing between Phil and the containment room access panel. He knows what this is. Smart kid. Phil hopes SHIELD doesn't count this lapse against him.

“I’ll explain later,” Phil lies, propping him up against the corridor wall. The guard turns to the panel again, opens his mouth like he's going to call for someone else, but his head drops down, chin thumping against his chest with the last low traces of his voice.

He’s young, and rightfully wary of Phil like the staff at the lab entrance. They let him through on the promise of a pending transfer of documentation, and the guards have all smiled and nodded smartly at Phil like business as usual, only turning sharp when they were halfway to the floor.

The staff at the entrance are just a shoe waiting to drop; there's no documentation on the way, and Phil is going to have to incapacitate them on his way out, he knows, glancing up at the camera whose blind spot he’s positioned them in. For now, he has to move as fast as he can and hope no one catches onto the situation here. No one else should come down this hallway, but he's not taking chances.

Leaving the guard to drift into unconsciousness, Phil heads for the access panel, tapping in the passcode to open the door to the main containment room. Sighing and taking one last look at the slumped guard, Phil steps into the main research station of the lab, sprawling and covered in monitoring equipment.

The outer chamber is large and circular, with a smaller walled-off enclosure at the center where the stone is kept, secured where any latent bursts of energy can be absorbed, analyzed. Phil isn't fluent in the readings coming from the machines, but he's familiar enough to know there's no dangerous level of energy being read from the stone.

Because if Loki is telling the truth, he reminds himself, All the energy that should be there is locked in Barton's body.

That thought jolts him out of his stare at the monitors. Glancing around for any lab personnel and finding none, he walks quickly forward and keys into the smaller enclosure. There's a pause, thankfully no genetic identification since the specimen is under low-risk observation, and then the door unlocks. He slips inside and closes it behind him, hoping no other personnel come in. He's done enough damage here already.

Locking the door and turning back to face the center of the room, he warily eyes the dark, etched stone where it rests on the floor.

He hesitates before taking a step towards it, but he can’t waste time here; the guards will only be unconscious for so long, and he needs to give himself a buffer to get out of the main SHIELD complex. If the guards wake up, if anyone finds the staff at the lab entrance once they're unconscious, the alarms will start ringing and Phil will have no time to get out.

At that point, it won't matter what Phil says or doesn't say to SHIELD, or how hard he fights; Loki's patience or Barton's time may have run out by then.

Forcing past his unease to approach the stone, he kneels down and wraps his hands around it, watching it carefully for any sign of light. It's dense, like solid rock or metal, slightly larger than the “baseball” estimate Stark made in the field.

Thinking of Loki’s hands on the surface, Phil rubs his thumb curiously over one of the indents, but it’s a pointless exercise. If he could find a way to get it to work without Loki, it would only solve one problem; Loki told him days ago—what feels like ages ago—that the stone is only one half of a larger artifact that would fix a problem the individual halves can't. With only a piece, there's nothing Phil can do.

Starting to get up from the floor, he tightens his grip on the stone, fingers pressed tightly against the surface. Lifted from the floor, the supposedly-dormant stone begins to hum almost imperceptibly under his fingers, and he warily holds it away from his body. He can feel the resonance in the grooves of his fingerprints, at the edges of his nails, pulsing under the nail beds. It creeps into the creases of his palms, then deeper, like static in his blood, crawling up his arms.

He's tempted to let go, but the dense weight of the stone holds it down in his hands like a magnetic pull, fingers frozen to the surface, and he's starting to kneel again to set it down and go for a specimen containment box.

Before he can release the stone, the hum pushes against his pulse, throbbing in his neck and droning low at the back of his head. His thoughts draw into it, gravitate away to nothing, leaving him empty except the humming, like a vibration in every molecule in his body at once.

He blinks into darkness, like floating for an instant before he feels the floor beneath him—

—still solid under his bent knees, but his hands are empty and trapped; his wrists curl behind his back, twisting against thick, tough rope. He can't see anything, but it's not like having his eyes closed, it's just nothingness, an absence of vision.

"One more time, Agent Coulson," asks a voice Phil can't place. "The coordinates?"

This isn't the containment chamber. The acoustics are different, like a much wider space, and the floor is colder. Halfway in and out of his body, he feels himself trembling, swallowing painfully. He hears his own voice speaking as if from miles away, hoarse and shaking.

"SHIELD agents don't negotiate."

"That's too bad."

There's the hum again, low and shaking his ribs in his chest, drawing the last of his consciousness out of observation and grounding it in his body, here, wrists raw under the rope and body aching all over. His heart hammers in his chest. He's been hit once and he can take it again, he tries to tell himself. He braces for it, even knowing it's not going to help. There's pain, and then there's this.

He drifts out again, but disconnected from the pain and the cold floor, he still can't see. He can only hear when the screaming starts up again.

But this time, it's not his voice at all.

God, it's Barton

—and then sudden, deafening silence, as he opens his eyes to the containment chamber wall, hands pinned to the floor where they curl beneath the stone.

The hum is gone, the static lifted from his blood, and the stone sits unresponsive between his curled palms, silent and still.

Phil calls back the memory. He's sure that's what it was, on some level he doesn't quite grasp; it fits into place somewhere in something he knows, but when he tries to feel out the edges for anything else he hits the wall again. All he has are the broad brushstrokes of it: someone asking him for coordinates, whatever caused the screaming, and Barton as leverage.

There's a moment's pause when Phil tries to get back to the memory, but he's already half-jumping to his feet at the next thought that occurs to him, which is that he has no idea how long he was out just now. There are no alarms, which says the guards aren't awake, but if he's been here a few minutes, he's already cutting it far too close for comfort.

Leaving the containment chamber, he cradles the stone close to his body away from his hands, then carefully rolls it into the nearest specimen containment box he can find, shoebox-sized and good enough for his purposes. Keeping up appearances with containment procedures will keep him from raising any red flags with the lab entrance staff until they've already been neutralized.

He doesn’t like how easily all of this is coming to him, but then, any SHIELD agent worth their credentials is prepared, moreso than for anything else, for the day SHIELD turns its back on them. Whether it's a matter of knowing escape routes, having underground connections, or even keeping spare cars or residences not registered with SHIELD and bought without a paper trail, everyone is knee-deep in paranoia and ready for the moment they have to protect themselves against SHIELD.

Or at least, that’s what Phil tells himself, as he’s passing the unconscious forms of the guards he tranquilized on his way through the corridor between the lab entrance and the research area.

He closes the door to the lab reception as quickly and calmly as he can to make sure no one spots any distant tranquilized guards. The staffers at the hazard lab entrance look as exhausted as they did when he came in. One of them is asleep on the desk, but the one at the terminal looks up, unfortunately awake enough to notice Phil through bangs that have long since given up on the clip holding them out of her eyes.

"Sir, still no sign of those requisition forms,” the staffer says on the edge of a yawn. “You’re sure you sent them through the proper channels?”

“I’m positive,” Phil says, putting on a puzzled look. “Could you check requisitions for lab 5? One of the guards in the corridor said there was an issue with misdirected forms there recently.”

“Sure,” says the staffer, shrugging.

She turns to the terminal, putting her back to Phil and giving him an opening to fire a tranq dart into the leg of the sleeping staffer, just in case. Silently, Phil steps behind the desk, watching the staffer lean closer to the screen, focused on scrolling through a transmission history.

“Where are you transporting that thing to, anyway?” asks the staffer. “Research outpost?”

“I’m afraid that’s above your clearance level,” Phil says, smiling apologetically even though she can’t see it, as he touches the muzzle of the tranq gun to her shoulder.

The staffer tenses, then sighs and swears under her breath without looking back at him, like she was expecting this—just like the guard at the access panel was. He squeezes the trigger, and she slumps over the desk slowly, muttering, knew... lost it.

This is what the junior agents think of Phil, what they thought of him long before tonight gave them any reason to. He could swear there was a time when they maybe, almost, respected him as a professional.

SHIELD used to be something almost like home to Phil. He leaves the lab complex and heads into mostly empty halls where no one will look directly at him, and thinks to himself that it hasn't really felt like home in a long time.

There’s precious little left for him here, as empty and impersonal as his apartment. Containment box in hand, it occurs to him that he needs a more subtle way to remove a smuggled weapon from SHIELD grounds, and he takes one last opportunity to head for the last place that still seems to know him.

+++

Phil makes it to his office and closes the door, just in time to put himself out of sight before his knees give out.

It's all starting to catch up to him again, reason and logic pushing back against his instinctive forward momentum. He sits on the floor with his back to his desk, the desert stone safely boxed in his lap, ready to be hand-delivered to Loki, and staring up at the ceiling, he mumbles: "What am I doing?"

This is the part where Barton is supposed to lean into his office and make some sarcastic comment—well, you're sitting on your floor, for one thing—or fire a paper clip arrow at his desk lamp to startle him out of his thoughts, hold out a hand to help him up.

Barton doesn’t do that anymore, Phil reminds himself, getting to his feet on his own. He’s not the person he was two months ago. And clearly, Phil thinks as he pulls the lid off the containment box, neither is he.

He pulls out the stone, rolling it into his briefcase and snapping the lid shut. He’s still not sure if he’ll be able to walk out undetected like this, or if he’ll have to give up pretense all together and incapacitate the three guards at the parking lot checkpoint and make a run for the car before the security footage review. That is, if Loki didn’t already handle that when he walked through exit security in Barton’s body. Phil wouldn’t put it past him.

Leaning on the desk and trying to steady his breathing, Phil can't shove away the thought of Barton’s eyes tainted green, his counterfeit smile, Loki crawling around inside Barton’s consciousness like he has any right to violate Barton’s existence that way.

The desk lamp hits the floor, bulb splintering and leaving the office pitch black.

It's not enough, and his arm sweeps sharply to shove the paperwork off the desk, sheets scattering under his feet. Too soft. It makes him feel weak, only burns everything hotter inside his head. The desk phone slams into the bookshelf, still not enough. Then it’s the stapler, the outbox tray, and the momentum of the throws is just empty motion in the air. Nothing is really hitting. Nothing is breaking. Phil can’t do any real damage here, or anywhere.

Phil is useless. Powerless.

He slams his fist on the desk and it crackles up his arm, muscles already protesting and now jolted with pain, and breathing out slowly, he leans over the desk, feeling some of the anger displaced.

It comes back to him in a haze, Barton’s voice while Phil tended to his hand—“Punched a wall.”—and all the fight goes out of Phil at once.

Why was Barton angry then? He threw a coffee mug at a junior agent for suggesting Phil should have died in Manitoba, but what was Barton so angry at with nowhere to point it? Phil needs to know. It’s clawing at him, and he doesn’t even understand why this is hitting him all at once.

When he drags his hand away from the desk, there’s no catch of dried blood at the edge; Loki’s fingers wiped it away, erased the last traces of Barton from the office, the last of the proof that he ever came to Phil's office and reached out, for just that one instant. The sight of his eyes flashes in Phil’s thoughts again, all of Barton’s grey-blue gone under the sickly green.

Phil stumbles back from the desk, then makes his way to the door, resting his shoulder against it to stall himself just a second longer, in case he finds some reason not to do this. He can't see the results of the earlier panic in the darkness, too dimly illuminated through the blinds, but a shaft of light from the hallway falls across the desk lamp on the floor, catching in the grooves where the surface is etched with tiny marks from paper clips.

Phil’s SHIELD badge hits the lamp with a bright, sharp noise, and he stands still for a moment staring at the faint edge of light on his credentials, already knowing he’ll never pick them up again.

He watches for a moment longer, then leaves the wreckage of the office and slams the door shut behind him, not even bothering to lock it. The knot in his chest loosens as he walks away down the hall, finally knowing he's broken something.

Phil isn’t coming back.

+++

There is no energy left in Phil when he passes through exit security. It’s late, and Phil has some last lingering traces of a reputation on his side; they wave him through without a second look, talking in low voices. Phil doesn’t stop to listen, in case they’re talking about Barton, or him. He doesn’t want to know. He doesn't care.

He crosses the floor of the garage and pulls out his keys, watching the distant blink of the car lights. He’s halfway there, still time to turn back. It only makes him walk faster. Every step against the concrete jars him, muscles too tense to cushion any force.

How long has it been since he slept, 45 hours? Phil curls his fingernails into his palm to keep alert, digging into the skin. He isn't sure if he's drawing blood or not.

He’s almost to the car, and it takes all of his willpower not to look over his shoulder at the exit checkpoint one last time. The staff in lab 7 will be waking up in another twenty minutes. Phil didn’t bother to lock his office or the firing range booth; someone could stumble on either at any moment and sound the alarms, lock everything down.

If he stays any longer, something is going to stop him, and this will all have been for nothing.

For a fleeting second, he almost wishes someone would. Then it wouldn’t be his fault, if Loki were to decide Phil has been gone too long. He could just explain everything to Fury.

Fury might almost try to understand, if Phil starts his explanation as far back as he can manage, before Manitoba, if he tells Fury that all of this started the day he came to Fury's office saying, One more case before he's on the Initiative's clock full time, just a loose end to tie up. We'll be back before the end of the weekend. Fury might give Phil the benefit of the doubt once he hears Loki has been prowling around.

And near the end of Phil's explanation about all of this, they would be interrupted by a phone call from a retrieval team at his apartment, talking gravely about blood and psych evals, with some forensic officer in the background mumbling I heard Hawkeye was unstable, but...

Sitting in the driver’s seat, key in the ignition, Phil breathes slow and still until the emptiness of the passenger seat starts to feel like a promise.

He starts the car.

+++

Phil rests his forehead against the apartment door, clutching the handle of the briefcase in one hand and the doorknob in the other. He turns the knob, and gets only silence in return; the lock doesn't click. He tries not to think of Barton breathing a sigh of relief with him the day before, recognizing the sound, glad to see Phil's apartment safe.

SHIELD will have set the alarms off by now. He doesn’t have long before they send a team to the apartment; not a retrieval squad for assets, but an attack team, breaking through the door and aiming at anything that moves.

Phil has come this far. He breathes, turns the handle, and slips inside, leaning the door shut behind him.

There’s something comfortingly familiar about Barton standing in his apartment, like something he’s missed, almost reassuring. But when he turns, it’s all green eyes and regal posture, like Loki’s puppet strings are holding back his shoulders, and Phil miserably holds up the briefcase.

He doesn’t care about standard exchange and negotiation procedure. This needs to move quickly. Thankfully, Loki seems just as focused; he crosses the room and gestures to the table near the door, where Phil lays and opens the briefcase.

“I brought what you wanted,” Phil says, turning the case away towards Loki.

The uncharacteristically smug look Loki puts on Barton’s face makes Phil lean back against the wall, physically flinching away. If getting the stone makes Loki leave Barton’s body sooner, Phil might consider the whole mess worth it.

“You’re quite efficient when you turn around to bite the hand that feeds you,” Loki observes.

Phil says nothing and looks aside, watching Loki lift the stone in Barton’s large hands—he’s taken the gauze off, and the bruised, scabbed skin looks tender in the open air, making Phil wince—curled under in the practice of smaller fingers. Loki twists Barton’s face into a devious, appreciative look at the stone, signs of a forming plan in Loki’s careful turning of the stone in his injured fingers. There’s nothing about this that Phil doesn’t hate.

“What now?” Phil asks, staring far away at the wall again. “You fix the artifact, then take the magic and leave us to do damage control with SHIELD?”

He’s waiting for Loki to gloat, but first there’s a laugh, low and dark in a way that Barton has only ever laughed after the worst missions, the kind he walks away from with bone splinters in his hair and other people’s blood in his mouth.

“First, I have a question for you, Agent Coulson,” Loki says, and he’s not even trying to fake Barton’s voice anymore, thank god. “When you lifted the stone, did you remember anything particularly interesting?”

Phil almost starts to wonder how Loki knows, except this is magic and Loki always knows better about that. He tries to dredge up as clear a recollection as possible.

“About a minute. Same as any other time I’ve been tortured for information,” Phil says mildly, not looking at Barton’s face; he’s afraid he might remember the screaming too clearly if he does.

“You only remembered that much?” Loki presses, like a warning, and Phil nods. “That’s too bad,” sighs Loki, falsely sympathetic. “I was hoping you remembered something about the other artifact.”

The mass of Barton’s body is suddenly closer to Phil, stepping in, and Phil unconsciously takes a step back only to realize he’s put himself in a corner. Loki advances, not touching but close, and looks down at Phil like an insect he’d like to crush under his heel.

“You see,” Loki says, “Our friend Hawkeye has been so stubborn. He has information that I want about your little excursion in the north, but with the magic in him, I can’t push into his memory myself. And much as I’ve tried, he won’t tell me.”

“You’re out of luck there anyway,” Phil says, staring blankly back, looking directly at the green in Barton’s eyes. “The psychologists have asked us a hundred times and neither of us remembers anything about Manitoba.”

Loki leans in closer, eyes narrowing, a condescending grin spreading through Barton’s face.

“Is that what you think?” he asks.

Phil barely resists rolling his eyes. He’s not playing this game of manipulation with Loki when they’re on this short a timer and Loki is grasping at straws. Phil glances aside, at the slightly larger space left between Barton’s body and the wall, and considers stepping away to move this along.

“SHIELD has made Barton’s life miserable because of everything he can’t remember about Manitoba,” Phi reminds Loki. “If he remembered anything, he wouldn’t have sat through two months of this crap. And he wouldn’t have waited so long to deal with this magical condition.”

“Believe what you will,” Loki says, and one of Barton’s heavy hands rests on the wall next to Phil’s head, cutting off the escape route he was looking at. “But if Hawkeye does remember something, it’s clear that he’s not going to be persuaded by any amount of pain.”

“I could have told you that,” says Phil dryly, which is when the other hand slams against the wall on the other side of his head. He doesn’t startle, but he does look directly at Barton’s face, the green of Loki in his eyes, and he stands unmoving from where Loki has caged him.

“He doesn’t worry much about his own well-being, does he,” Loki notes, scraping callused fingers against the wall before he pulls one hand back, grasping slow and tight at the front of Phil’s shirt. “But oh, Agent Coulson, if you only knew how much he worries for yours.”

Phil is yanked forward from the wall, turned and shoved into the middle of the room, and Loki cracks Barton’s knuckles loudly as Phil gets his balance.

“Hawkeye,” Loki warns. “I’m going to ask you just once to cooperate.” A pause, and he cracks the knuckles of the other hand, smirking. “No? You’re certain? Well, then.”

He steps forward, and Phil’s tired muscles don’t have the reflexes to escape the hand seizing the front of his shirt. He’s grabbed, held still, and doesn’t even see the punch coming before Loki smashes Barton’s fist across Phil’s jaw, blood suddenly bright in his mouth.

In all their years of sparring, Phil never realized how gentle Barton was being with him.

The hand at his collar lets go, but he can’t get his bearings fast enough. The next hit is square against the side of his head, dizzying, and Phil staggers with it, one knee shaking and threatening to go out from under him. With his balance lost and his center of gravity thrown, Phil has no defense against the next swing, catching just above his eye. That one drops him. He tries to catch himself, but his wrist lands awkwardly on impact, caught under his body with a sharp, twisting pain.

“Oh, this is precious,” Loki says. “You should hear it. Shouting. Begging. He wants you to fight back.”

Phil coughs out a weak, dark laugh into the carpet and rolls onto his back. He appreciates the sentiment, but Barton has to see this for what it is. Loki is using all of Barton’s force, and Phil is exhausted; he’s been awake too long, he strained himself fighting drones in Hammer’s bunker, and the stress is dragging him down further. There’s nothing left to “fight back” with.

And even if he could physically fight back, he isn’t sure he’d be able to make himself throw a punch at Barton’s puppeted body.

"But this isn't quite fair, is it," Loki says.

He drops Barton's full weight heavily down onto Phil's stomach and pins him to the floor. There's a sound from Barton's belt that Phil knows all too well, and he opens his eyes to watch a blade glint in the light above him. Field knife, six inches and serrated, probably taken from the range supply table. Phil never even noticed the sheath at his hip, too caught on everything else.

Loki lowers the hand with the knife, blood on the fingers; he must have opened some of the smaller cuts on Barton’s hand in the brawl.

“Here,” Loki says, and presses the handle of the knife against Phil’s palm. He pulls Phil’s fingers in around the handle and holds them there, and Barton’s skin is cold, like Loki’s presence has pushed all the warmth out of him.

“You’re joking,” Phil manages, blinking hard against the dull ache in his skull.

“Aren’t you frustrated, feeling so powerless?” Loki grabs Phil’s wrist, cold and tight, and lifts his arm from the floor, pulls it in so the tip of the blade touches Barton’s shoulder through the shirt, inches from his heart. “If you don’t remember, then Hawkeye is the only way I can find the other artifact. You could put a stop to my plans right now.”

He drags the knifepoint downward, slicing into Barton’s shirt, and barely pricks against Barton’s chest, blood beading at the tip of the knife.

“I’m not playing this game,” Phil says, and Loki puts a smirk on Barton’s face.

“You don’t get to choose.”

Loki drags Phil’s wrist up, then gives a short, controlled pull forward, pushing the knife an inch into Barton’s shoulder. Phil tries to pull away, but Loki closes Barton’s hand around Phil’s, holding his grip there as the knife sinks slowly inward.

“Can you feel it, Agent Coulson?” Loki asks, and Phil doesn’t say a word, but he can, he knows the exact moment when the serrated edge meets skin, he’s too well trained not to know the feeling of it tearing slowly through muscle and connective tissue. “Because I assure you, Hawkeye can.”

Without thinking, Phil reaches up with his other hand and grasps the blade where it rests against Barton’s shoulder, with fingers curled at the flat and a serrated edge slicing shallowly into his palm, tightening his grip around the handle to hold it back. Loki just laughs, grabs his arm again, and pins Phil’s wrists to the floor above his head with a thick hand, knife still protruding from Barton’s shoulder as he leans over Phil.

“Let’s make this look good for SHIELD, shall we?” Loki says, reaching up to grasp the handle of the knife.

Blood drips hotly onto Phil’s cheek, rolls down over his neck, and Phil is trapped to watch as Loki pulls the knife in, the last few inches of the blade disappearing into Barton’s shoulder. When it’s fully in, his grip tightens on the knife, preparing.

Phil’s instincts are firing again, flaring up. As long as the knife is there, it’s still blocking parts of what it cut through. If he pulls it out, it’s going to worsen the damage. Phil struggles under the weight of Barton’s body, the pressure on his wrists, and that only gets another laugh.

Loki’s grip on the knife twists, then wrenches the blade out of Barton’s shoulder all at once, blood spreading in the fibers of his shirt and spattering Phil’s clothes, his neck, his face.

And Barton can feel all of it.

Phil focuses on Barton’s eyes, ignoring the green of the irises.

“Barton,” Phil says steadily, “Torture is nothing new. Don’t give him what he wants.”

“Yes, Hawkeye, listen to Agent Coulson. Feel free to stop me from getting what I want,” Loki says, reducing his grip to only one wrist and sliding his hold to press Phil’s right hand down against the carpet. “And I’ll make sure you never get what you want.”

Loki turns the knife, blade arcing downward, and puts a thoughtful hum in Barton’s throat, one Phil can’t categorize like he always does; there’s a way Barton hums when he’s concentrating on a target, another when he’s frustrated at paperwork, another when he’s uneasy but would never say it out loud.

“What makes you valuable, Agent Coulson?” Loki asks, curving Barton’s mouth into a smirk. “Your aim? Your piles and piles of paper? What would you be without them?”

Phil says nothing, and doesn’t turn to watch as the knife lowers. Barton’s cold hand gathers Phil’s fingers in towards his palm, small, ring, middle, thumb, and then a broken line of pressure rests against the base of Phil’s index finger flat against the carpet, gently dragging in the points of the serrated edge to draw a warm trickle of blood.

“Let’s find out,” Loki says, and Phil stares up at Barton’s eyes without so much as blinking, burying the fear rising in the back of his mind and tightening in his chest.

“SHIELD agents don’t negotiate, Barton,” Phil says evenly. Fingertips grasp his index finger, extending it, bones drawing just slightly apart at the joint.

Phil sets his jaw, steels himself for what’s coming. He’s expecting Loki to be slow, vicious. He can take it.

He’s not prepared when the knife pushes down with sudden force, pain bursting bright and drowned in a gush of hot blood over his palm, and he barely manages to choke back the short scream it forces out of him.

Loki folds two of Barton’s fingers down against the flow of blood, pressing against bone and tendon and nerve where the base of Phil’s index finger used to be, and he can’t swallow this one, howls in pain through clenched teeth and reflexively tries to pull his hand away, body twisting under Barton’s weight pinning him down.

There’s a tingling beneath Barton’s fingers, pain dulling and then numbing, and Phil feels the blood stop pulsing out of the wound, skin knitting flat over his knuckle as the pain recedes into nothing. Loki laughs in Barton’s voice, sounding surprised.

“Oh, is that how?” Loki asks, more to himself than to Phil. Blood dots the corner of his mouth, trickling. “Hawkeye, Hawkeye,” he chides. “Your body won’t last if you keep letting the magic through for him.”

Keep letting the magic through, Loki said, which means Barton has done this before. But Phil can’t remember when, and he isn’t thinking about it, can’t focus, suddenly caught on the last part of what Loki said and the blood at the corner of Barton’s mouth, the blood still pouring from his shoulder and dripping onto Phil’s shirt. He has to be in pain, and the magic is already killing him. He shouldn’t even be thinking about Phil right now.

“Don’t push yourself,” Phil manages, voice shaky with the memory of the pain.

“Agent Coulson,” Loki sighs, and moves Barton’s bruised, bloodied hand to Phil’s throat, pressing sharp and heavy to stop his breathing. “You are pathetic.”

Phil just smirks up at him, mouth closed around blood that isn’t all his, and gives nothing.

“What do I take next, Hawkeye?” Loki asks slowly, touching the flat of the bloodied knife to Phil’s cheek. “An eye? His voice?” He digs Barton’s thumb in against the side of Phil’s neck. "Maybe I’ll open up his throat again, right where you—”

He stops, eyes turned up and away as if listening, eyebrows raised interestedly, then grins.

“Oh, that is helpful,” Loki murmurs. “Well, perhaps I’ll let you assist me after all.” The knife lifts away, twisting so the edge cuts shallowly into the side of Phil’s face for an instant, and then Loki tosses it aside to rest on the carpet, blood soaking in. “I’ll retrieve the stone Agent Coulson so kindly brought for us and we’ll be on our way. I’ll even give you a moment for farewells.”

The green fades out of Barton’s eyes, leaving them blankly blue-grey for an instant before they blink sharp and clear, and Loki’s green and gold robes sweep against Phil’s carpet beside them, turning away to return to the table and the briefcase.

Barton’s hand on Phil’s throat instantly releases, trembling violently, and his eyes widen just before he leans up on shaking legs, stumbles back to crumple to the floor beside Phil and lands heavily, awkwardly.

He scrambles up, clawing at carpet, and drags himself away from Phil on elbows and knees, making frantic, pained sounds and half-falling every time his injured arm hits the floor. Blood trailing behind him, he pushes himself into the corner of the room, arms wrapped around himself and face turned away against the wall, desperately gulping in air.

Phil tries to call out to him, but his bruised throat aches too much for his voice to escape. Fighting the exhaustion, Phil tries to move. Lifting his head makes the world spin, and trying to raise himself up sends an ache through his entire body; he collapses to the floor again.

“Pitiful,” Loki sighs, crossing the room with the desert stone cradled in the slim fingers of one hand. He uses the other to grasp Barton’s injured shoulder and haul him back from the corner, shoving him to the floor.

Barton rolls onto his side and coughs wetly, spattering the carpet with more blood. That’s not his shoulder, that’s the magic, Phil realizes, and helplessly curls three fingers and a thumb in against his palm, suddenly acutely aware of the healed, empty space.

“You really have no sense of self-preservation, do you.” Loki lays his hand over the back of Barton’s shoulder where the knife stabbed through, and green light sparks between his fingers, spreading to glow at the entry wound. “You’re lucky I’m feeling charitable with my own magic. Can’t have your life bleeding away so soon. We still have a little trip to make.”

Farewells, Loki said.

When Barton has served his purpose, what are the odds that Loki will bother to bring him back alive?

“Barton,” Phil chokes out, throat aching, barely making a sound.

It's enough—Barton's eyes widen, his head starts to tip in Phil's direction. Then his mouth closes, eyes squeezing shut, and he turns his face far away from Phil just as his expression starts to crumple.

There’s something too familiar about all of this, but thinking about it makes Phil taste rain, and blood, and then Loki smiles at Phil, perfectly satisfied. Victorious. He raises his hand, light glinting on Phil’s keyring.

“Can’t have you following us or trying to make your escape from SHIELD, now can I?” He presses the keys into Barton’s hand, and Barton weakly curls his fingers in around them. “Let’s have ourselves a little drive, Hawkeye. Any last words for Agent Coulson?”

Barton mumbles something, turned away, but Phil doesn’t catch it.

“He says,” Loki graciously relays to Phil, “‘Tell her I said ‘Warsaw’. Nothing else to add, Hawkeye?” he asks, with a falsely sympathetic look at Barton. “The magic may block me from your thoughts, but you’re hardly subtle.”

There’s not even a mumble this time, and Loki sighs, looking impatient. Distantly, Phil thinks he might hear sirens; it could be SHIELD drawing attention or clearing a path to put people on the ground near the apartment building.

“Stubborn to the last, aren’t you. Have it your way.” Loki rests his hand on Barton’s forehead, then vanishes, and Phil closes his eyes, not watching the spasms of Barton’s body as Loki takes hold.

Phil tries to roll onto his side to get an arm under his body to move, unable to fight back but trying to do something. His muscles protest, but he manages to lift himself up on his elbows, footsteps approaching from the corner of his eye.

“So much of his blood on your clothes and in your home and on the knife,” Loki says in Barton’s voice, and Phil wishes he could make that stop. “All the suspicion in SHIELD, a theft, and now Hawkeye will disappear, and they’ll find you no longer have the stone. Won’t they think you’ve just as easily hidden a body?”

A heavy foot swings in just under Phil’s ribs, pain jarring through his stomach and putting him back on the floor clutching at his side. He glares up at the green in Barton’s eyes, trying to breathe. The rotational force of being knocked aside has made him dizzy, but he holds steady.

“I hope you enjoyed your career while it lasted, Agent Coulson,” Loki says. “When the Avengers ask about their missing comrade, give your regards to my brother, won’t you?”

He turns, Phil’s keys spinning casually around one of Barton’s fingers, and Phil can barely raise himself from the floor by the time the door is open and shut.

Phil can’t stay here; SHIELD will be here soon, guns blazing, and Loki is right about the suspicions. They won’t be here to question him.

That, and he isn’t going to let Loki win this one just yet.

He forces himself to roll onto his front, push up from the floor. His head spins, his wrist still pinching tight inside, and he spits out a mouthful of blood, only mostly his own. He has to blink to see straight, twice to stop the dizzy spell.

There’s too much to think about right now—Barton’s memory, Loki’s plan, the magic—and Phil tries to center his thoughts on moving, getting out and getting somewhere else, somewhere he can figure this out.

He props himself up against the couch, struggles to steady his shaking legs beneath him, and barely has the presence of mind to grab his coat, sleeve still bloodied from Barton's broken stitches, from where it's folded over one side. Aside from that, the things he would normally bring in case of emergencies are all in a bag in his office; gun and coat notwithstanding, he’s going into this empty-handed. No money, no cell.

First priority: payphone, he thinks. Call the only person left who’s going to listen to a word you have to say.

His legs stay under him long enough to stumble to the kitchen counter, brace there, and he uses it to support himself until he can lean off and fall against the door. No locking this, either, without his keys.

He nurses some small, faint hope that maybe SHIELD will give him the benefit of the doubt and take all the unlocked doors as a sign of wanting to be found, leading them somewhere.

That, or they’ll think he’s finally lost it.

He closes his fingers around the doorknob, feeling cold metal against the flat, smooth space where his index finger is supposed to be, and swallows more blood and a rise of sick heat in the back of his throat. He’ll worry about that later.

Opening the door, he slips out and closes it behind him, pockets his hands, heads for the stairwell as he gradually gets his balance and his bearings back.

Leaving the door unlocked doesn’t matter anymore, regardless, he thinks bitterly.

Everything of value, everything with meaning that was ever in his apartment, is gone.

+++

SHIELD agents, however undeserving of their titles they may be, are never unprepared. And the first thing they prepare for, if they have any self-preservation instinct at all, is SHIELD itself.

Phil doesn’t have much in the way of backup resources—he had a spare apartment once, years ago, but there was an incident with a rogue sniper who had his crosshairs on Barton and they needed somewhere off-grid to keep him; in the heat of the moment Phil didn’t hesitate before compromising his safehouse—but he knows someone who does, at least.

Phil needs a payphone, above all else. He pulls the coat closer to hide the blood on his clothes, keeps his head low, heading for the payphone a few blocks away; Phil finds it with some effort, missing it twice in his slight mental haze before he spots it, practically falls against it.

He cradles the receiver on his shoulder and punches in the number with his left hand, keeping his right hand firmly in the pocket of his pants, damp blood smudging into the denim. Can’t think about that right now.

Under the ringing on the other end, he hears distant sirens, drawing attention half a mile away. Phil looks up, spots a few black SUVs beginning to quietly circle the block around Phil’s apartment building. He really hopes the cell he’s calling isn’t in one of them.

Finally, the ringing stops, and there's a soft click of the phone touching an ear.

“How did you get this number?” Natasha asks, deadly low.

“By promising you’d never have to file your own requisition forms again?” Phil suggests, forcing a smile into his voice despite the pain in his jaw.

Natasha is silent, and on the other line there’s a shuffling sound, static. When her voice comes back, it’s near whisper volume. She’s not alone, wherever she is.

“What’s going on?” she asks.

“Loki.” Phil swallows the rest of the explanation. “I need a car. You have a spare, right?”

“You sound hurt,” Natasha says dully, not worried, just noticing. “Is Clint with you?”

“No,” Phil says with a weight in his voice. He thinks he knows the message he’s supposed to be passing on, and this is the question to answer. “Warsaw.”

There’s a pause, and then Phil hears only a quickly-suppressed gasp on the other line. Natasha has always been the best at catching herself and holding steady; if she were the one facing down Loki, things might have turned out better.

She sighs slowly, and he can picture her, perfectly composed with that untouched look on her face like everything is fine. He draws on it, focusing in.

“From your place, it’s five north, three west,” she says quickly, steadily, and doesn’t explain what ‘Warsaw’ means. Phil isn’t planning to ask. “Keys in the usual spot, two ignition, one lockbox. It looks beat-up, but it runs fine.”

“That makes two of us,” Phil replies dryly, and has to stop to spit out a small rise of blood in the back of his mouth. He’s faintly concerned that the brawl might have loosened a molar, but he’ll live. “I can’t explain right now,” he says. “But I’ll call when I can.”

Natasha is silent for a moment.

“You left your badge,” she says quietly.

Phil nods uselessly against the receiver. He knows what she’s saying, what she’s asking.

Are you coming back?

He hangs up without answering.

Shaking it off, he points himself up the street, eyes on the crosswalk ahead. Five north, three west. Five north, three west.

At the end of the eight-block walk, he finds a lightly dented black sedan, windows tinted and one taillight shattered to keep a low profile. He knows Natasha; there’s sure to be a replacement taillight in the trunk along with extra plates.

He kneels next to the driver’s side door and feels at the back of the left front tire, feeling until his fingers graze over the teeth of a key, taped down. Natasha also likes to keep things simple.

Phil catches himself thinking, I’m going to miss that.

He doesn’t stop to correct the thought, just climbs into the car, re-locks the doors, and crawls through, collapsing across the backseat. He’s in no condition to drive yet, but this will keep him out of sight until he can trust his reflexes.

Rolling onto his back, wincing as he lays his bruised jaw against the seat, he closes his eyes in the darkness of the car, and his body finally gives up on him, refusing to let him even move his arm from its awkward drape off the seat and towards the floor.

Fading out, he hears a low hum, and there’s a memory of resonance in his fingertips as everything goes dark, wrapping him up in sleep.

Everything is still for a long stretch, dreamless, and then Phil hears a familiar sound cut through the air, opening his eyes—

+

—to watch the arrow fly, a dead-center strike to the set of spare paper targets tacked to the far wall of the range.

"I think they were planning to use those," Phil says, more for the sake of saying it than an actual complaint.

"Yeah, yeah," Clint says, shrugging. "Get off my back, I'm on vacation."

"And yet, here you are," Phil notes.

"Says the guy with an armful of folders." Clint nocks his next arrow, aiming at the active targets this time. "I spend all my time on Fury's speed dial. Shooting things that aren't trying to kill me is my idea of R&R."

Phil smiles, taking the top folder from his pile and setting the others down on the supply table.

"You sure that's all you want to do this weekend?" he asks, enjoying the stutter in Clint's movements, the curious sidelong look.

"What, you got something better?" he asks. Phil just leans back against the table, waiting. Clint chuckles and lets his shot fly, hitting three moving targets in a line. "All right, Coulson, I'll bite." He lowers the bow, turning to Phil and nodding at the file in his hands. "What's behind folder #1?"

"You remember those gun runners we tried to shut down a few years ago?" Phil asks. Clint frowns, hums in thought. "Severe sunburn," Phil adds, and recognition dawns instantly on Clint in a sudden scowl.

"Oh, those guys who dragged us all over Cactus-fuck, Nowhere," he says, glaring at the folder.

“The ones we followed across the Sonoran desert for a few days, yes,” Phil clarifies, and Clint scoffs.

"Let me guess, they got shot up in a turf war?” he says, looking faintly hopeful.

"No, alive and well," Phil assures him, taking a set of photos from the file. "In fact, surveillance puts them within twenty miles of here in the past 24 hours." He hands over the photos, watching Clint shuffle through them.

"Really." Clint raises his eyebrows. "So, what, you want to grab some popcorn and send a team in to clear them out?"

"I had something else in mind," Phil says. He pulls out the signed authorization forms at the back of the folder, holding them up. "We have the weekend free, so I asked Director Fury if we could close an old case ourselves. I thought you might be getting cabin fever always waiting for the phone to ring."

Clint looks up at him, a smile slowly spreading on his face.

"We get to chase a bunch of thugs down by ourselves?" he asks. Phil nods, and he grins even wider. "How soon?"

"I filed the requisition paperwork for the car this morning," Phil says, holding up the keys. "We're going to tail them to their next business meeting."

"I'll get my stuff," Clint says instantly.

"Already put two go-bags in the back," says Phil, turning around and smirking where Clint can't see it, heading out the door. “New experimental bow from R&D and all.” Clint's footsteps follow quickly behind him.

"I swear, Coulson," Clint sighs fondly, "Sometimes I could just kiss you right on the mouth."

"Just because I'm no longer responsible for you doesn't mean we can fraternize, Agent Barton," Phil says, and Clint laughs. Phil just barely keeps from laughing with him. If Phil is being honest, this is exactly how he wants to spend his weekend off, too. He's looking forward to doing real legwork.

He’s also coming to terms with the fact that the Avengers Initiative has rendered their partnership obsolete; Fury only agreed to sign off on this assignment if Phil promised that this would be the last two-person field op he and Clint ever took together.

He’s an asset, Fury said. No more high stakes for small fry targets.

And considering Clint tends to make those stakes higher with slightly risky behavior in the field, Phil is starting to think maybe that’s the right call. He likes working with Clint, but it’s getting harder on Phil to watch him get injured and nearly killed as often as he does.

Clint sprints ahead of Phil in the parking garage, practically bouncing as he rocks on his heels next to the passenger side door, and he looks more excited than Phil has seen him since the Avengers were put on standby for whatever Fury needed them for. Phil knew fieldwork without Clint’s aim beside him would be an adjustment, but he wasn’t expecting this feeling, cataloguing the marks of Clint’s personality like it’s something he wants to hold onto.

“So where to first?” Clint asks, settling into his place in the passenger seat, a familiar shape in the right edge of Phil’s vision.

“Tracking puts their vehicles at a standstill about 150 miles east of here. We’ll see if we can catch up in the next few hours and gather intel.” Phil starts the car, and Clint sighs contentedly, leaning back in his seat.

“Intel is your thing. Just let me know when it’s time to bust some good old-fashioned bad guys,” he says, and starts to make a small bow out of things he finds in the glove compartment.

Pretending to be annoyed, Phil suppresses a smile and rolls his eyes up to—

+

—the ceiling of the car, blinking heavily out of sleep and into a full-body ache like all his bones have been hollowed out.

There’s a mile of detachment between him and the memory. What he needs from it is 150 miles east of here, and he drops the rest to focus on logistics, sitting up in the backseat despite the protests in all of his muscles at once. No dizzy spell, no blurred vision.

Outside the car, the city is lit and alive again, and Phil watches the hands of the passers-by, holding coffee or stifling yawns. Women in business suits are wearing flats, stilettos poking out of their purses for the commute, stepping over the shadows of the city laying in long lines stretching to the west, surrounded by faintly orange light. It’s morning.

He hasn’t been asleep long, but a few hours’ sleep has always been enough for him to function on. He climbs into the front seat, sitting still to check for any lingering disorientation, and rests his hands on the steering wheel.

His right hand is a mess of dried blood, three fingers and a thumb and a skin-covered knuckle leading nowhere. Phil’s stomach twists, but he swallows the bile warning in the back of his throat and starts the car, thinking only: 150 miles east. Phil needs to be away from SHIELD, but that's only a vague concern in the back of his mind.

“Hawkeye, Hawkeye. Your body won’t last if you keep letting the magic through for him.”

Phil stares at the space in his fingers, touching his thumb to the curve where Loki cut straight between the bones and Barton stopped the bleeding with something that was already killing him. He closes his eyes, and he only sees Barton crawling away across the carpet, desperate, after that look in his eyes—the same look he had in Phil's office when he let go, when Phil asked if he had any resentment to work out, just for the sake of being cruel and hitting where it would hurt.

And then Phil told him to get out.

It doesn't matter that all he has is a coat, a gun, and whatever Natasha keeps in her spare car for emergencies. He isn't going to run and hide while there's a chance he could catch up to them, and the remotest chance he could do something about this.

The mission to follow the gun-runners was Phil's idea; this is his fault. So he's going to follow the route as best he remembers, and if the best he can do is bring back a report of his own failures and make some small effort at fixing his mistake, he'll do it, and take whatever punishment SHIELD has when it's over. If Phil was ever worth his credentials, maybe Barton will be able to come back and clear his own name, regardless of whether Phil is in any condition to accompany him.

Phil has already accepted the possibility that this is the last trip he'll ever make.

He's also dodging the fleeting thought that maybe losing his trigger finger was just what he deserved, and when he’s shoved that far enough into the back of his mind not to think about, he pulls out into the road, focusing in until all he sees are exit signs to follow in a pattern he vaguely remembers. He counts the miles, idly noting familiar landmarks until it drowns out the foreboding feeling hanging over him, and the gaping emptiness in the passenger seat where there should be a second body, singing loudly to something on the radio.

There's no one here to make Phil feel remotely like smiling, but driving is at least calming, and Phil starts to collect his thoughts.

+++

Phil’s memory is blank—except the fragment he remembered from touching the stone—for the three days in Manitoba, and he doesn’t remember much about the week after, either. He knows he was in Medical because of reports, and he briefly remembers Natasha at his bedside, alternately sympathetic and searching, like she wanted to ask something.

Then there was Sitwell and the debriefing, and that’s the first clear memory Phil has, looking down at a report about something he can’t remember, hearing them tell him about ballistics evidence that—

+

—”Would appear to be consistent with your injury,” Sitwell says.

“This is all circumstantial,” Phil says, setting the folder down. His hand wavers, still not quite steady from the medications they're easing him off of. “Even if it wasn’t, I would take issue.”

“I understand your hesitation, considering who we’re talking about,” says Sitwell with a glance at the psychologist sitting in with them, busy taking notes. “We’re just trying to get your perspective on events and find out it there’s any chance—”

“He didn’t shoot me,” Phil says, and slides the folder back across the table to them, glancing at the door. They've been doing this for two hours; he's exhausted.

“What makes you so sure?” asks Sitwell.

“Common sense,” Phil sighs. He sits back in his chair and rubs tiredly at his eyes. His head is starting to hurt, and this is a circus.

“The two of you have been in Medical for a week now, am I correct?” the psychologist asks. Phil nods, deliberately silent. The psychologist is ten days into his two weeks’ notice; he just wanted to get his piece of the big story before he left. Phil won't give him anything more than he has to. “And have you inquired about his condition at all since you were both admitted?”

Phil narrows his eyes at the psychologist, then glares unabashedly at Sitwell for letting this go on, while Sitwell glances at his watch.

“Is this a debriefing or a psychological evaluation?” Phil asks, looking between them. Sitwell clears his throat and looks away, and the psychologist returns to his notes.

“Hawkeye has been placed on a preliminary sixty-day suspension, pending further investigation,” the psychologist says without looking up from his clipboard. “It’s set to begin following his medical leave. There’s no point in suspending him while he’s still recuperating from his injuries and undergoing more evaluation.” He meets Phil’s eyes. “But we could run the suspension concurrently, if properly persuaded to reopen the inquiry—say, if we had testimony about events in Manitoba.”

Phil grips the sides of the chair, keeping his face perfectly calm, and forces all the threat out of his voice before answering.

“I don’t remember anything,” Phil says, for the hundredth time.

“What about a statement of character?” The psychologist asks. “Unless you’d like us to use what you already have on file.”

Beside him, Sitwell makes a subtle tapping gesture on the table, three fingertips touching down, then two, four, one. It’s the signal to stop an interrogation or an evaluation, but there’s no observing body to step in. This is for Phil.

“If you want me to make a statement for the investigation,” Phil says, pushing his chair back from the table, “Send a request through the proper channels. I’ve been debriefed.” He stands, and Sitwell stands with him, opening the door. Phil doesn’t look back.

In the hall, Sitwell shakes his head, glaring at the closed door.

“They pulled all your files, sir,” Sitwell says, leaning in and lowering his voice. “They’re going to use them as evidence that he’s unfit for field duty.”

"That's ridiculous." Phil rubs at his forehead again, headache creeping back. “I’ve never questioned if he was fit for field duty in my reports."

“They have a pattern the psych staff found disquieting,” says Sitwell uncomfortably. “You’ve noted a... lack of risk assessment in his decisions in the field.”

Phil bows his head and sighs to hide the nervous swallow in his throat. Those notes in Barton's field reports were supposed to be advisory, just a pattern to monitor for his protection. Phil had been hoping to go through them and find any way to prevent more.

This would all be easier if he could just talk to Barton, but they're keeping Phil between Medical and his apartment and they've got Barton pinned down somewhere else for monitoring. He could probably send a message through someone else, but what would he even say?

He's trying to think of something when a static creeps in around the right side of his neck, where the bandaged bullet graze wraps from behind and down towards his pulse, and it warns him, stop.

It warned him earlier in the week when he breathed in to ask Natasha about Barton.

He knows in a spark of instinct that he can't send a message, can't ask, can't do this. He can't worry about Barton. Right now, he needs to dodge these evals and get through enough Medical testing to get back in the field. Testimony has its place when his head is clear, and when it's not throbbing under his fingers.

“I’ll deal with this later,” Phil says, pushing the problem away. He takes out his keys, miserably holding them out to Sitwell; he’s not clear to drive yet. “For the moment, I’d like to get my mandatory medical leave over with.” Sitwell’s eyes flicker to the bandage at Phil’s neck and he nods sympathetically—Phil hates that—as he takes the keys, following Phil down the hall, past security, out into the parking garage.

It's a short drive. Phil dozes off in the car, and he wakes up on reflex as they pull up—

+

—into the parking lot Phil has been looking for, proof that even if he's forgotten the three days, he remembers the road well enough to get this far. There's still a chance he could put this right.

+++

It’s a small diner, independent but with the aesthetics of a larger chain that used to own the building. He pulls into the same space he used two months ago, though there’s no row of dark cars lined along the side of the lot this time, no suspect vehicles to plant tracking devices on.

He double-checks his coat for any signs of blood, hidden in the dark fabric and thankfully appropriate for the cooling weather, and takes another moment with a napkin and water bottle from the glove compartment to clean his hands of any remaining blood. There's a red stain on his skin, and his missing finger—he's gradually coming to terms with this, but he's fairly sure it hasn't quite hit him yet—looks strange, but hopefully it won't draw too much attention.

There's nothing he can do about the dark bruises on his face, nor the cut on his cheek where the knife drew blood, but they're easily excused as something innocent. When he’s sure he doesn’t look like some kind of wandering serial killer, he pockets a few bills from the glove compartment’s small emergency fund, steps out of the car, and heads into the diner.

The diner is barely staffed and there's only one table with customers; he follows the sign suggesting that he seat himself, and looks around for a moment to get his bearings. After a glance in the right direction, he recognizes the booth, and settles in where he sat two months ago, taking in the broad strokes of the diner. It's different in the daylight, but familiar enough to ground him.

The waitress stops by and Phil tries to smile good-naturedly around his bruises like he’s just the kind of guy this happens to, giving a mumbled—his jaw aches, something he wasn't expecting—excuse about a recent car accident. She gives him a pitying little sigh and takes his order, walking away to handle the other patrons on the other side of the diner.

Closing his eyes, taking in the sounds and smells and feel of the diner without the light intruding, Phil catches on something familiar—

+

—“You’re a filthy liar, Coulson,” Clint says under his breath, jabbing at greasy-spoon-diner mashed potatoes with his fork. The metal catches orange in the weak lighting from the hanging lamp above the table, reflected in the window against the unlit night outside. “Said we’d get to chase these guys down.”

“Yes, I did.”

Phil scans the opposite wall of the restaurant without fixing his eyes anywhere, taking in a general view of the men clustered across two booths. There must be somewhere he can plant the bug near them. If they can figure out where this group is going for their next deal, they might be able to get there ahead of them and kill two birds with one stone. Then again, that's not an expression Phil likes to use in this context. Hawks are birds, SHIELD's mascot is an eagle. It's more of a jinx than anything.

“And there they are,” Clint goes on, “And here we are. Not moving.”

“Not all stakeouts happen in cars, Barton,” Phil says. He thinks he sees the leaves of an artificial potted plant just around the corner, near the far booth, and miraculously between the main diner floor and the restrooms. It would be feasible to slip the bug there on his way past.

“I’m taking your coffee,” Clint says. Phil ignores him, starting to wonder why he thought bringing Clint was the best strategy at the time. He speculatively rolls the disc of the audio bug in his palm, hidden under the table, then stands and heads across the diner. He offers no explanation, and Clint doesn't ask.

Phil strolls past the group of them, carefully flicks the bug into the plant's pot with the tip of his index finger, and walks through to the restroom alcove to keep his cover.

“...don’t like the sound of it,” one of the men is saying.

Phil keeps moving, resisting the temptation to so much as slow his footsteps. He very patiently waits one minute inside, counting seconds at the sink, then walks back out, past them. The men are silent, stiff-shouldered in the corner of his eye, and he acts like they don’t exist.

Sitting down opposite Clint again, he drags his stolen coffee cup back to his side of the table and takes a sip. Clint doesn’t react, sitting still with a look of concentration on his face and, Phil notices, one fingertip pressed close to his ear. He put in the receiver while Phil was gone.

Phil is starting to remember why he missed having Clint in the field with him.

Silently, Phil points at himself, giving Clint a questioning look. Clint shakes his head “no”; they haven’t made verbal mention of Phil. Clint leans closer over the table, grabbing the coffee mug as an excuse.

“They think they’re walking into a setup,” he says quietly. “Not from us. From the buyers.” He pulls the coffee back and takes a gulp of it, then holds the cup on his side and slouches so the small bud in his ear is out of anyone else’s eyeline.

Phil looks between his food and the tiny shifts in Clint’s expression as he listens, and though he never looks past Clint’s shoulder at the other booths with any focus, he can see the general shapes of them gradually slumping back in their seats, atmosphere easing. It should put him at ease, but there’s a particular disquieted look in Clint’s eyes, a gradually lower curve in his mouth, and his fingertips are tight on the tines of his fork, scratching nervously at the tabletop in a single thin line, an arrow’s tip pointing at the table’s near edge, tiny fletching marks.

Phil reaches across for the coffee again, getting Clint’s attention, and Clint grimaces.

“Not guns,” he says, very quietly, and Phil knows already that he doesn't mean this is a case of the wrong kind of contraband, he means this is a worst-case scenario. They have something bigger.

Phil can see them starting to get to their feet, and he downs the rest of the coffee at once, purpose served. Catching on, Clint sets his elbow on the table, rests his jaw on the curve of his hand, and uses two fingertips to discreetly remove the earpiece.

The gun-runners leave, and Phil silently counts the seconds. Clint shuffles out of the booth when he hits thirty.

“Hey, I uh, gotta take care of something—grab the check, will ya?” Clint says with feigned ease, heading off towards the restrooms. His walk slows near the two emptied booths, barely dips, and his hand comes up from the plant in a loose curl, fingers closing around the bug.

The cars lined up outside start, but Phil isn’t worried; Clint planted the trackers before they came in. Not that Phil is ever really worried about a mission going smoothly—if not without injury—when Clint is on the job. He's considering calling into SHIELD about the change in plan, but this is vacation, and he doesn't want SHIELD throwing anything into this and spooking the gun-runners before the deal.

They’ll follow them wherever this meeting is supposed to—

+

—Phil blinks out of his memory when he suddenly tastes rain, and the static feeling in his neck turns to a buzzing in the back of his head, resonance in his fingertips where they rest on the tabletop. He rests his forehead in his hand, bites his lips together in a line, and closes his eyes. It comes to him in flickering images, just enough to piece together.

Cars stopped at the edge of the woods, the cover being lifted from the bed of a truck.

The gun runners are pulling something out with effort; it throws their balance when they lever it out, like it’s much denser than it should be.

Another set of cars sits across the field, and someone raises a radio. The transmitter doesn’t pick up the conversation clearly, but when they speak, Phil knows it instantly.

The coordinates, Agent Coulson.

Phil opens his eyes and he swears there’s the faintest molecular trace of ozone in the air. He didn’t remember them taking anything out of the truck before; he’s getting somewhere, at least. If moving is getting him closer to tracking this all down, there's no time to sit still.

He flags down the waitress, smiling sweetly as she refills his coffee, and asks if he could get his order boxed when it’s done, and some coffee for the road, even as he’s lifting his refilled mug to drink all at once. The waitress sets the styrofoam box on the table for him with a disposable cup of coffee, and as he’s counting out the tip, Phil makes a mental note to pay Natasha back with interest, if he ever gets the chance.

When he sets the money down, his eyes catch on the opposite side of the table, where the surface is marked by a small, shallow carving of an arrow pointed at the opposite side of the booth, faded from two months of wear around it.

He starts to smile at the familiarity of it, the trace of Barton left here, and then notices something else. Beside it, there’s a newer mark carved into the tabletop, an identical second arrow, pointing where Phil sits, and a small P.C. etched beside it. He leans in to brush his thumb over it, and the fingertip comes away dusted white with a few small particles scraped away, slightly stuck together from the damp grooves of the carving. It’s a fresh mark; the table has barely been wiped clean once.

They were here.

Phil lets himself smooth three fingertips and an empty space over his initials, left here like something to be kept alive, then pushes away from the table and heads for the door.

+++

It’s a day’s drive to the border of North Dakota, and Phil remembers they stopped somewhere in between. The roads look vaguely familiar so far, enough that his mind wanders a little as he drives.

Between their respective medical leave, psychological evaluations, and the suspension, it was nearly a month before they crossed paths after the mission. The first time Phil saw him after Manitoba, he was sitting on a bench in SHIELD with Steve Rogers, slouched away from what looked like one of Rogers’ trademark “you’re wasting your potential” speeches, something—

+

—Phil has seen him rattle off at Barton a thousand times and never make a dent. Barton has always resisted any suggestion that he's anything more than he lets on, and most people have given up trying to sell him on the idea.

“Sir?” Sitwell says from beside him. Phil swears Sitwell leans away just a little when Phil turns to look at him.

It’s an effect Phil has been having on a lot of people around SHIELD lately. Sometime in the past week, an agent started a rumor that Phil was found dead at the scene and came gasping back to life in a body bag on transport, and while no one actually believes it, it’s called some attention to exactly how close Phil’s injury was to being fatal.

The real rumor of the month, though, is one a Medical tech let slip to someone: despite the limited ballistics evidence and the best examinations, the best guess Medical has for Phil's injury is a bullet graze, but they can't explain it completely. Certain structures are too intact, the wound seemed too neat. But there was a faint burn of muzzle flash on Phil's neck and the GSR on the inside of Barton's sleeves is damning, to a team of psychologists who think they've established motive.

Phil still isn't buying it, especially not the part about motive, even if Barton hasn't contacted Phil despite the lifted communication restrictions. It's not like Phil has reached out to him, either. But even thinking about that makes Phil suddenly uneasy, and it's a feeling he's decided to trust, which is why he's turned to Sitwell and hasn't moved from his end of the hallway.

“Here,” Phil says, holding out the thick inter-office envelope he brought. Sitwell takes it, glancing down the hall at Barton and Rogers.

“You wouldn’t rather...?” Sitwell looks briefly hopeful as he trails off, but Phil steps back and nods him off towards them. “Well. I’ll be right back,” Sitwell says, turning on his heel and walking away with the envelope in hand.

Phil leans on the corridor wall, eyes fixed on Rogers instead of Barton. Out of focus on the edge of his vision, he sees Barton look up as Sitwell approaches. The faded orange shape of the envelope trades hands, and Barton looks down; without the risk of eye contact, Phil lets his eyes trail over to Barton. He watches Barton open the envelope with one bandaged hand and pull the papers out with the other. Phil tells himself he doesn't care about the bandages. It's not his business.

Barton flips through, frowning, then turns to the last page. His head barely starts to lift from the papers, and Phil is already looking away from him at the back of Sitwell's head, daring him to tell him why he walked over. Sitwell is saying something, gesturing vaguely—but he is saying something about the situation, clearly, because Barton moves, stands sharply, shoving papers and envelope against Sitwell’s chest.

Rogers stands after him, saying something, and Barton wheels around, glaring up at Rogers’ face and jabbing a finger at his chest while Rogers gives him a warning look.

“I don’t need ‘defending’!” Barton snaps, loud enough for everyone in the corridor to hear.

He turns to Sitwell, grabs the envelope and papers back, and walks away from them, down the hall towards Phil's general direction. Barton doesn’t pause his walk even for a second as he shoves Phil’s testimony, barely-read, into the trash bin in the hall. When he passes Phil, they don’t look anywhere near each other.

And watching Barton walk away from him, distance spreading between them, Phil feels himself breathe a sigh of relief.

He can’t even remember when he started to feel like this, but knowing Barton doesn’t want his help, suspecting that maybe Barton wants this distance as much as he does, finally lifts a burden from Phil’s shoulders. Looking at his envelope in the trash bin and then turning to watch Barton's back as he walks away down the hall, he feels a knot of tension in his chest finally unwind, like something safe.

Go ahead, Phil thinks at Barton’s back. Doesn't matter anyway.

When all this gets cleared up, Barton will be a full-time Avenger and Phil will handle everything he can at HQ. Until then, they're just being used as chess pieces by psychology staff, and ever since he woke up in Medical, Phil has had a single clear feeling that, if nothing else, he's no pawn for anyone else's game.

He leans off the wall and walks off in the opposite direction, and doesn’t bother picking up his testimony from the trash. It’s already on file for future reference, and it was a formality besides; the board already agreed to a report of inconclusive evidence and closed the investigation. Of course, that doesn’t stop the whispers in the hall as Phil passes.

There's talk of Barton’s problems with authority, of psychological trauma, of the simple reason that if you had the chance, wouldn’t you have shot the guy? He ignores the feeling of every gaze in the hallway touching his scar, hissing about lack of explanation, the impossible, the fact that if anyone could make some kind of nonfatal gunshot wound, it would have to be the world's greatest marksman, right?

Phil just filters that out and focuses on what he can use. The juniors all joke that he died out there in that field and his body came back without a soul, and Phil never met an intimidating reputation he couldn’t live up to.

He passes them all without any response to the turning and whispering, and he looks straight ahead—

+

—at the road, until the sky has gone dark and his eyelids are too heavy to keep safely moving forward. He's tired, but the memory has him weighed down even further.

He feels disconnected from the past two months, even moreso from the days before Manitoba. The more he thinks about it, the less sense any of it makes. Before Manitoba, he and Barton were friendly. He wasn't even "Agent Barton" in Phil's mind, more like a real colleague, maybe even something approaching a friend. But he knows—he knows on some level he can't explain that when he woke up, they couldn't do that anymore.

Phil is missing the most crucial pieces of this, and he knows he's running out of time on the things he can remember. It can't have been too many hours further down the road than this when everything went wrong.

He pulls off at the roadside, curling up in the front seat with what remains of his styrofoam box of cold diner food and even colder coffee. The food isn’t bad, but it’s bland. Normally, Phil would have coated the pile of scrambled eggs in enough pepper to make his eyes water.

The food tastes like nothing in particular, and Phil stares clear-eyed and silent out the window, shoulders low in the shadows hanging heavy inside the car. The space beside him blends into the darkness outside, like the empty place in the right side of his vision has bled out to surround him, permanent and inescapable.

It feels less and less like an empty space beside him, less like Barton belonged here and vanished, and more like Phil used to belong and doesn't fit right into his old spaces anymore.

No matter how this ends, when the dust settles, he has nowhere left to go.

+++

Phil spends a while awake after he's done picking at the food and slugging back the cold coffee. He sprawls on the backseat, holds out his right hand's sillhouette between himself and the starlight outside the window.

“What makes you valuable, Agent Coulson? Your aim? Your piles and piles of paper? What would you be without them?”

What is Phil without his gun and his paperwork?

He'd love to see Rogers try and pull one of those speeches on him. Phil used to at least say he could handle more paperwork, and faster, than anyone else in SHIELD. He got the Avengers' requisitions forms in faster, handled situation reports faster, even sorted through the most menial of forms faster than three of his junior agents at once. He has his aim on the range to support him, a long and successful mission history on his record.

Phil used to be able to say he was Phil Coulson, Agent of SHIELD, with all the integrity and principle and determination that promised. He's turned on SHIELD's own, aided a genocidal trickster god, and now he's lying alone in a car halfway to North Dakota moping about taking an injury because he was weak to psychological pressure and cowed into not fighting back. What's left of Phil's integrity now? Or his pride, or SHIELD's?

And Phil used to be the go-to for logistics, planning, adaptation. What is he even trying to do here—find Barton alive? Stop Loki? Get intel to halt a forming plan and come triumphantly back to SHIELD?

He laughs, bitter and helpless in the back of his still-sore throat. Staring at his hand again, he sighs and smiles tiredly, starting to accept that—

+

—”This isn’t gonna work,” Clint says, losing his battle with the reclining passenger seat. Phil, having about as much luck with the driver’s side, sighs and releases his seat upright agan. Clint does the same. “That works great in your car, but these don’t go nearly far back enough.”

“And neither of our spines is going to take well to sleeping on the parking brake,” Phil agrees, already thinking a few steps ahead.

The car they’re borrowing from SHIELD really isn’t made for sleeping in, which leaves precious few options if they want to be remotely well rested. Phil turns his head to look at the backseat at the same time he sees Clint’s head swivel back in the same direction, and when Phil meets his eyes, Clint is visibly suppressing laughter, biting his lip.

“So, Coulson, you wanna be big spoon or little spoon?” he manages.

Phil won’t be defeated that easily. And from a logistical standpoint, it is cold tonight; they’re going to feel worse in the morning if they’ve been shivering in their sleep all night.

“Put up or shut up, Barton,” he says with a smirk, and climbs into the backseat. He settles on one side against the window, raising his eyebrows at Clint’s surprised look. After a moment, Clint just shrugs, grinning smoothly.

“Okay, but you’re not getting past second base.” He follows Phil back, maneuvering the front seats forward and settling on the floor of the backseat. Phil blinks at him.

“You’re sleeping down there?” he asks, eyeing the floor suspiciously.

“Well, where else am I gonna—” And then Clint’s confused look breaks out in a grin. “Phillip Coulson, were you seriously suggesting we cuddle?” he asks, clearly loving every second of this.

Phil rolls his eyes and lays down across the backseat, closing his eyes.

“I believe I told you to put up or shut up, and you’re doing neither,” Phil replies.

“I was just gonna say, if you’re offering...” Clint trails off, and Phil looks down at him, finding him rubbing at his arms, eyes averted sheepishly. “I mean, it is kinda cold down here.”

Phil sighs; Clint asking for any kind of help is rare, and Phil believes in rewarding healthy behavior, so he nods Clint up. He rolls over and Clint shuffles in, lying down across the seats with his back to Phil’s. They don’t say anything else, and Phil drifts off not long after, but he’s not asleep long before Clint predictably falls right off the backseat onto the floor with a loud thump.

“I had a feeling that might happen,” Clint mutters from the mats. When he climbs back up and lies down, Phil rolls over to face him, and hooks an arm over his waist.

“Not a word,” Phil says, tilting his head up to keep from being muffled in Clint’s hair. “If it keeps us both asleep, it’s worth the trouble.” Clint laughs, shoulders shaking against Phil’s chest.

“Look, let’s stop being teenagers for a second,” Clint sighs. He turns, catches an arm under Phil, and hauls him up to lay on top of Clint, head resting on Clint’s shoulder, their legs bent neatly between each other. “There. Logistically sound?”

Phil pauses, considering it, and he’s telling the truth when he answers, slow and almost impressed: “Yes.”

“Good.” Clint drops his head onto the backseat. “Also, when those guys start driving again and the transmitter goes off, now it’s your job to get sight of them.”

“Should have known you had an ulterior motive,” Phil yawns.

A heavy arm slings across his back so he doesn’t fall onto the floor, and he settles comfortably under it, drawn down towards sleep again. Everything is dark and quiet, except the murmur of wheels and faint light from distant passing cars, and the occasional owl.

They’re out in one of the more isolated middles of nowhere Phil has seen, but as he drifts off, he thinks contentedly that at least he’s not—

+

—alone.

+++

On the slow, practically leisurely pursuit of the gun-runners, they didn’t stop in many places between the diner and North Dakota. When they did, it was to pump gas, or hang back while their targets stopped for food. Phil didn’t mind; even if he was capable of boredom, which he would never admit to, things could never be dull for long with Barton in the car.

Driving now in the quiet not-boredom, Phil keeps reading the signs as they pass, counting the miles.

As much as he’s been thinking about the trip north into colder temperatures, he woke up this morning thinking, strangely, of the desert and the—

+

—heat bearing down on him as he walks out of the tertiary SHIELD supply outpost in California, keys in hand. They head to the car in silence, watching Stark fly ahead to look for any sign of Loki.

Barton trails slightly behind him, heels dragging in the sand. Phil has avoided letting people walk behind him since the scar became an issue, but one good thing about Barton is that Phil never feels his eyes there. He doesn’t care why not. All he needs from Barton is his aim and his instinct, and from a tactical standpoint, Phil is glad to have them.

There haven’t been any paperwork headaches over that, either; higher-ups dismissed Barton’s suspension a week early, and even though the Psych wing at Medical was intent on screening him a while longer, they couldn’t quite make their case to hold an Avenger still when Loki’s name came up.

That, and they were all pulled away by the Psych wing’s new “staff coordinator”, which Phil has found translates to “person who holds paperwork to look useless and hides behind an innocent looking title, while monitoring the staff’s behavior and filing the most viciously efficient ethical inquiries Phil Coulson has ever seen”. Phil is starting to like him.

They get into the car, and Barton opens the file on the energy readings, tapping coordinates into the GPS as they pull out onto the road. Phil starts thinking about the possibility of what happens when and if they actually find Loki, already working at logistics. Barton has only been back on the range consistently for about a week—not that Phil doubts his aim, but he wants to get a handle on things, at least.

“Did R&D ever finish the stress testing on the new strings?” Phil asks, eyes on the road.

“Yup,” Barton says disinterestedly, flipping through the research briefing on combat conditions in the desert environment. They’ve done this before, but R&D likes to include notes on how certain gear will adapt to different conditions, especially after two months of development with so little field testing.

“What’s our priority?” Phil asks, because getting at least a sentence out of Barton, however sarcastic, will make Phil feel incrementally more secure in this mission.

“SHIELD does not have adequate resources to contain Loki,” Barton recites in a monotone. “Our objective is to secure the source of the energy readings if possible, and if otherwise, determine the threat level and make a strategic retreat.”

“And above all, do not directly engage,” Phil says, ignoring the yeah, yeah Barton mutters under his breath.

They lapse into silence again. He feels like he should say something like, good to have you back, or so, happy to be back on Fury’s speed dial? just for the sake of rapport. He thinks, and finally, reluctantly breathes in.

“So, how’s your—” he starts, and Barton stops him.

“Coulson,” he says, low, cutting Phil off. Phil sighs, partly in relief. He doesn’t want to do this either. “We’ll deal with Loki just fine without the bullshit. Work is work.”

Work is work, Phil silently repeats to himself. No bullshit. And thank god.

The GPS screen blinks at them and Stark’s voice comes in over the comm.

I’ve got eyes on Loki,” Stark says, “Three miles ahead of you.

Phil hits the accelerator and they follow the armor’s signal without a word. If Phil is being honest, he's uneasy about this. Desert terrain without much cover, Loki, whatever’s causing the energy readings.

But in the corner of Phil’s vision, Barton takes up a familiar kind of space that reminds Phil there’s one variable here he isn’t nervous about at all.

The red plating and blue light of the Iron Man armor comes into view, and Phil slows—

+

—pulling off to the side of the road at the forest’s edge, staring through the trees at the empty clearing distantly ahead.

Phil doesn't remember anything clearly after driving this far, and he slides over to the passenger seat to take inventory of the glovebox, in case there's any other resource left to him here that could possibly help, in case he remembers anything.

And when he's sure there isn't, he takes another look, to pretend he's only delayed by a concern about logistics and that he has any idea what he's doing here, or where he'll go, or why he's even come this far.

Phil has no plan, he has no control over what he remembers, and he is utterly, utterly alone.

He looks a third time.

+++

Above him, rumbling out around the forest, there’s a low warning of thunder, and Phil looks up at the sky to make sure there are clouds, that this isn’t just his mind playing tricks. Sure enough, past the treetops, the soft cloud cover distantly fades into a darker rise; he blinks, and can’t tell if he’s just missed a flash of sheet lightning.

Pushing away the thought of the storm, Phil focuses on the clearing again, for what feels like the hundredth time. This is the one, he’s sure of it. He can see it all in faint shapes in his memory, cars parked on either side, men pulling something out of the bed of the truck; the radio raised, and the voice Phil faintly remembers.

Under another threat of thunder, it comes to him again: The coordinates, Agent Coulson.

Something about the storm makes it stick, clinging like static to his skin, and after a moment Phil realizes he’s breathing harder. His heartbeat pounds against his ribs, an alarm ringing, but he doesn’t know what this instinct is for. Something is about to go wrong. He flicks his eyes to the road, then to the passenger seat, and his fingers grip the steering wheel remembering something, muscle memory telling him, turn, turn now.

The spaces of Phil’s fingerprints are buzzing and the low tone presses at the base of his skull, hands weighed down from the steering wheel like the density of the desert stone is in his palms again.

He's dragged under into a heavy darkness without warning, eyes slipping shut—

+

—in laughter as he shakes his head, but he doesn’t stop Clint’s storytelling.

“So the guy says, ‘No, he’s here on account of some trouble with Caribou.’ And then the Mountie,” Clint stops, laughing into his hand like he's trying to stifle it. “The Mountie goes—wait, hang on, hang on.” Clint sighs out the rest of his laugh and points to the transmitter. “They stopped. Two miles.” Phil looks at the screen, and a thought crosses his mind.

“Grab the atlas. How far are we from the border?” he asks. Clint pulls it out, briefly silent as he looks it over.

“Not far at all,” he says. “Could probably get in through the woods, and I don’t think these guys are gonna stop nice and polite-like for patrols.”

“We may have to stop them after all,” Phil muses. Clint leans back between the front seats and pulls out their supply bags from the back, grabbing a few things from the glove compartment and adding them to his. Phil takes the earpiece from the transmitter and hopes they can get within audio range.

“Ready for one last game of cops and robbers?” Clint asks, grinning.

“Don’t be so cynical, Barton,” Phil says, smirking along. “If it all goes well, maybe Director Fury will let us spend more vacations like this.”

“Yeah, if we agree to pay all our own expenses, maybe. This Avengers gig doesn’t really pay all that great. Free room and board, though.”

“True,” Phil says, not listening as closely now. The transmitter signal says they’re closing in, but they should have another half mile.

"And putting up with Thor and Tony and Steve is a drag sometimes," Clint sighs, leaning forward in his seat like he's got eyes on something. Trailing off, he adds: "Don't mind Bruce so much."

"Hm," is all Phil says. In the darkness, Phil can’t see much of the far highway, but the headlights catch something small in the road up ahead.

"Coulson," Clint says softly, almost thoughtful, like he's on the verge of figuring something out.

The transmitter’s beeping gets faster, and Phil realizes exactly too late what’s happening.

He jerks the wheel hard to the right, pointing his side of the car towards the device as he slams on the brakes. Moving on reflex, Phil guards his face with one arm and reaches out with the other to press a hand to Clint’s shoulder, not sure when in the midst of all this he hears his own voice say, hold onto something.

The silent, still night of the highway bursts into light and heat and sound.

Glass and heat burn into Phil’s arm and he feels the punch of momentum, the drag of the hard spin out across the pavement, the bright pain of his ears ringing and his eyes shocked blind by the light.

The world slows to a stop, leans uncertainly at its edge, then flips over before it all goes dark and quiet again.

Phil can’t blink his eyes into seeing, can’t hear beyond the muddled hints of sound around him, can’t move his heavy arms to free himself from the pressure across his lap and shoulder, holding him hanging here. He smells something burning and tastes blood, spits out a small piece of sharpness that cuts his lip on the way out.

He feels—and it takes him so long to notice because it isn’t new, it’s been there since the world reversed—the press of a hand on his chest, fingers splayed and shaking, pressing hard for an instant before they claw in, clutch, vanish as if pulled away with effort.

There are voices speaking as if underwater, and the pressure holding Phil up across his shoulder is gone; dropped, his head hits something and he can’t lift it. His arms are pulled behind his back, and something bruises his arms to haul him backward, out of the heat haze and into the cold.

Phil is pulled, and can do nothing but be pulled, dragged backward, feet fumbling at hard ground and then softer uneven ground, finding no purchase and no strength, no equilibrium to hold him. He blinks and blinks and tries to hear, and nothing.

In the darkness, the only indication that his vision is returning is the moon, full and vanishing haltingly between lines and leaves as he’s pulled by footsteps whose impacts he's finally starting to hear. He’s also starting to pick up a faint, tinny mix of voices from the earpiece still threadily clinging together at his ear, threadily connected and registering sound.

Then the moon is clear in sight again, trees spreading wide to show the sky, and Phil is turned upright, dazedly watching as lights suddenly flash from across the clearing, bright and washing over a line of cars and a truck. Phil remembers a plant. A single arrow carved into the table.

The gun runners, he knows, calling himself back, and he watches the cover lift from the truck. He turns to the lights again, watching a silhouette raise the block of a radio towards its head. The earpiece registers a voice, but he can’t discern the words, still dizzy.

At the back of the truck, the men tip back, carrying something long, patterns catching in the sharp light, and then the man with the radio is speaking again.

...from the Sonoran,” says the earpiece. The side of Phil’s head is suddenly struck by a dull impact, and he falls, face scratching against sticks and grass and leaves. He breathes in dirt and chokes it all goes black again.

The world is in and out for long moments, voices only a murmur when Phil is fully conscious again.

He blinks into a sharp silence, and then there’s a warning yell before the clearing bursts into gunfire.

The roar and intermittent ricochet of the noise makes Phil’s ears ache, like his head is threatening to explode, and when it stops, all he can hear is his heart beating in his throat—

+

—still pounding in his chest when his eyes open to stare out the windshield at the empty clearing.

He sighs and bows his head, trying to breathe. They never walked into the clearing. They never even drove this far down the road. A bomb in the middle of the road—obvious, and no matter how well they adapted to survive it, they fell for it, and fell into someone's hands. Phil still doesn't have an explanation for the gunfire, but he's weaving it together.

Two sets of vehicles, two sets of men. A weapons trade—They think they're walking into a setup, Barton said in the diner—and one of the men on the other side, the one whose voice Phil remembers talking about coordinates, he knew about the Sonoran, knew who they were later, wanted whatever was in the truck and took it by force. Phil is starting to understand, but it's not all processing yet.

This is what Phil likes about reports; he can write things out, categorize, make connections. But, he reminds himself, even if he had a pen and a set of forms right now, he wouldn't be able to work this out half as quickly, or neatly. He tries to piece it together with what's left to him, looks up to try and feel out exactly where they would have gone from here, except when he looks up again, the clearing isn’t empty.

Past the grey trees and the pine needles crossing and blending together, above the grass shadowed in the fading light, Phil sees vibrant green and gold at the far edge of the clearing, and a slouching, hesitantly gesturing figure, pointing off deeper into the woods. Loki makes a sweeping gesture forward, his hand prodding at the back of a bloodied shirt, and they walk forward, disappearing into the thick of the forest.

Phil waits, just for an instant, to make sure if either of them turn around, he won't be seen.

Then, stealing an extra clip from the glovebox and wrapping his coat tighter and around himself, he steps out of the car and leans on the door, pulling himself together. The car is cold but steady at his back, and he sends a few grateful thoughts Natasha’s way for getting him this far, hoping he'll get a chance to apologize for the trouble. At the very least, when this is over, he’ll send someone home to apologize in his place.

With a coat, a gun, and no plan to speak of, he stumbles off the roadside and into the brush, through the clearing, into the forest.

+++

Phil makes slow progress through the woods, watching for any sign of Loki. He has a faint idea of where he’s going, but this isn’t somewhere he’s consciously walked, to his knowledge. There’s an atmosphere here he knows, vague outlines of spaces his body remembers being pushed and dragged and carried through.

The sun sets as he passes through, stormclouds pushing in over the treetops; he moves faster, ignoring the stumbles over roots or rocks beneath his feet. He’s fighting for the last strains of daylight and dry weather, but he can’t help feeling like there’s something else pushing him forward.

He’s starting to feel it again when he rests his hand on a tree to get his balance, when he catches himself after a fall, that pressure in his fingertips like static, like vibration. There’s a part of him trying to remember something else. If it’s what comes after the car, after the gunfire, Phil isn’t sure he wants to know; whatever happened in between took him and Barton and broke them into pieces for a retrieval team to find, and he's still not sure he's pulled together again.

He has to hold that off a little longer. Just a little longer, and after he’s done handling this, he can find somewhere to stop and remember whatever’s next.

And he is going to handle this.

Of course he is. Wandering in the middle of a forest he can’t consciously navigate, chasing down a Norse god with magical weaponry, carrying nothing but a gun he may not even be able to shoot properly. Sure, he can “handle” this—handle what? Five seconds of bravado before Loki kills him without a second thought and goes on with his plan?

The last of his forward motion breaks, strikes the reality of everything and it jars him, kicks out the back of his knees. He sinks down to the forest floor, trying to catch his breath.

What is he doing here?

Phil clenches dead, drying leaves in his hands, breaking between his fingers—fingers and a space, can't do paperwork to get his head together, probably can't shoot straight—and he laughs, breathy and quiet and helpless. He really thought that this might work. He came this far in a beat-up backup car without a single thought, and now he’s going to raise a gun against a god.

He closes his eyes and feels the heat and glass through the window, fear welling up from somewhere else entirely, and his body folds down against the ground, lungs refusing to draw in any more air. He should never have chased Loki here.

Chased Loki here? No, not Loki. Never Loki, this was never about victory, Phil never had any plan of attack because he knew this was never about Loki, but he can't let anyone know, he can't let anyone find out that he's here for another reason, because the last time he let the enemy see his priorities, they held Phil down to watch Clint scream, and there was nothing Phil could do to make it stop, and he didn't even try, kept repeating the same thing back to them even—

He's flickering at the edge of something he doesn't remember, but he knows it and it's screaming at him in the back of his mind. The resonance of the forest floor spreads down Phil’s fingers and into his hands, into his blood, up his arms like static through the wiring of his body, warning, crackling; the low hum in the back of his head digs in, sound swelling and drowning out the world.

This is a familiar feeling, a familiar sound, sinking into a different kind of something he knows, dark and heavy and dragging him away from the leaves and dirt, towards a floor that's hard under his knees and the feeling of empty hands secured behind his back.

He takes in one last gulp of air, then loses his grip on the forest.

+

There is no dirt, no crunch of leaves, no thunder and no canopy of trees, only a flat floor beneath him reaching outward to the wide, dark walls of a warehouse.

“Agent Phil Coulson of SHIELD,” laughs the man with the radio.

Someone’s boot swings heavy into the pit of Phil’s stomach, unprotected with his arms bound tight behind his back, and Phil coughs at the shock it sends through his lungs, pain twisting through his body.

It’s morning, and this is Day One.

***

These are not gun runners.

These are not the kinds of criminals they’ve been chasing for years in the low alleys of old towns, the kinds of criminals they’ve sighted through rifle sights after helping each other onto high ledges, the kinds of criminals they’ve wrestled half-awake to throw them out of windows in hotel room ambushes. These are not even the kinds of criminals who they’ve smirked at while strapped down to tables, restraints just giving enough to let them lean up and spit blood in the men’s faces, silently challenging.

Phil doesn’t know exactly what kind of people they’ve come across, but there’s a crawling unease in his chest that says they’re going to find out, and it won’t be good news.

The man with the radio is named Hans, his uniform looks like hand-me-down HYDRA issue from the 40's, and he has no discernible German accent, which has all the markings of a man with all the best intel gone rogue for all the worst purposes. Phil is regretting more deeply every second that he didn't call this one in at the diner days ago.

As they watch his three henchmen turn to a long box on the floor and pull out the carved staff, narrow enough to curl their thick hands around but weighing them down like something far heavier, Clint is still calm enough to shake his head and laugh.

“Phil, they pre-empted my joke,” he says, grinning despite his split lip. “I can’t do the ‘happy trails, Hans’ thing if his name really is Hans. Defeats the purpose.”

“I feel for you, Barton,” says Phil dryly, “I really do.”

He rubs fresh welts into his wrists struggling against the rope, finding no slack and still not catching any knots with his fingers. His wrist is starting to cramp. Clint isn’t even bothering with the ropes anymore, his wrists already burning red and raw beneath the twine when Phil checks.

Giving up for the moment, Phil watches the men carry the staff to where Hans leans on a crate; they lay it down on the crates and walk away slowly. Three men and a leader. They don’t seem tight-knit, but the men appear determined to do whatever Hans orders, which either means loyalty or terror. Phil can already hazard a guess which.

“Grab the quiet one,” Hans orders, and for an uneasy moment, Phil thinks they mean him. Instead, the men reach behind a stack of crates, out of view, and drag out the unconscious form of one of the gun runners.

They throw him down on the floor in front of Hans, who rolls the man onto his back with a kick and uses the tread of his boot to push up the man’s shirt.

“There we are,” Hans says as he looks down at the man’s exposed front. “See the target, boys?”

The men lean on the crates nearby to watch, and the gun runner begins to stir. Phil can see a mark on the man’s chest, over his ribs, circular, colored like a burn scar. Hans draws from the holster at his hip, aims the handgun down at the man, and fires. The bullet pierces the mark, and when the man’s body jerks up from the floor, the entry wound bursts out in light.

A tendril of wavering blue-tinted energy coils up into the air from his body, drifting to the staff where it rests on the crates, coiling around and sinking into the carvings.

God, Phil hates magic.

“Shouldn’t take what doesn’t belong to you,” Hans tells the gun runner, and he keeps his face turned down at the man to watch the last wet gasps of blood leaking from his nose and mouth.

Punctured lung, Phil assumes. He can’t account for the light, but that didn’t look pleasant, either. It only lasts a few more seconds, and then the man is still.

“Well,” Clint says unpleasantly, and Phil nods silently.

Hans curls his hand around the staff, its impossible density apparently gone as it lifts easily in his hands, and he turns to the two of them with a smile.

“Now that the power’s back on,” Hans says cordially as a faint blue glow flickers and ebbs in the carvings of the staff, “I can ask you two a few questions.” He approaches Phil first, and Phil doesn’t shy away from his eye contact, sitting upright and tipping his chin up, watching Hans disinterestedly. “I want something very simple from you, Agent Coulson,” says Hans.

"I somehow doubt that," Clint mumbles under his breath, and thankfully Hans doesn't seem to catch it.

“Somewhere in the southwestern United States, there is a SHIELD surveillance outpost that gathers energy readings.” Hans prods lightly at Phil’s chest with the end of the staff. “If you give me the coordinates, you don’t have to find out what this does.”

Phil smirks, showing no fear. He’s been interrogated before. Magic or not, he’ll manage.

“SHIELD agents don’t negotiate,” Phil says.

“I was hoping you’d say that,” says Hans with a smile widening slowly like an opening wound, as the light in the staff starts to gather and brighten in the carvings.

In the corner of Phil’s eye, Clint’s body goes tense in sympathy, and then the tip of the staff touches Phil’s chest. There’s a lingering moment where all Phil is aware of is a dragging sensation against his sternum, cold and hot and drawing at something all at once like the building of a static charge.

Pain.

It’s taken hold of his whole body before he even registers the sensation, and then it’s everywhere. Every muscle in his body seizes, spasming and pulling too tight. Every bone seems to be splintering out into tissue at once, digging in, spiraling out, sending a heavy, sick heat across his skin like blood pouring everywhere. His lungs won’t move, alternately burning raw and then weighing in his chest as if swollen with water, but he can’t cough it out. His heart hammers in his chest, stutters, audibly failing, then fluttering to life again threatening to burst.

This has to stop. He’s going to die. Someone stop it. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop.

He chokes into consciousness staring up at the warehouse ceiling, lying on his back and struggling uselessly. The floor is slick and warm where the skin of his bound arms touches concrete, bloodied from the grit of the floor.

“Back with us now, Agent?” Hans asks.

Phil bites down to stifle the pained sound he feels rising in his throat, but the instant the edges of his teeth touch the skin of his lip, the pain slices impossibly deep through his mouth, and he opens it with a cry that doesn’t make any sound at all.

Then the pain burns through his arms, and he realizes he’s been struggling to get the weight off them unconsciously, too lost in processing too much sensation to properly sort out the signals. He rolls onto his side and feels like his shoulder’s been dislocated, but it’s the least painful position he finds.

It also puts his eyeline in a position to see Clint’s hands behind his back, fingernails digging into his palms so hard that blood drips down to the concrete.

“Easy,” Phil breathes.

Clint’s hands shake, but his fingers relax, bloodied half-moon welts left behind. There's no time to feel relieved before someone grabs Phil's shoulders, the simple pressure of hands like a crunch of bone and slice through the muscles, propping him up on his knees again. His head lolls forward, chin thumping down onto his chest, and he feels like his jaw has dislocated from the impact.

“The coordinates, Agent Coulson,” Hans says.

Phil swallows, like choking down glass, but he manages: "SHIELD agents don't negotiate." Unable to raise his head or turn his eyes, he can’t see the staff lower.

What he sees is Clint’s body thrash suddenly in the ropes in the corner of his eye, muscles locking and dropping him onto his side on the floor. A scream grits out from behind Clint’s teeth, low and wavering, resilient.

Phil breathes, lungs aching, and chest momentarily tight with guilt that his refusal brought this on Clint. But he trusts Clint to understand, and to fight until Phil can move again. He breathes again, and it feels like his ribs are fracturing all at once.

A long minute later, Clint's screams end on a wheeze that turns to a low laugh, weak and pained to Phil's ears, but it's enough to show that Clint hasn't even begun to break down. They'll get through this, Phil tells himself, and then he's shoved to the floor and the impact of his head with the concrete leaves him dizzy, nauseous, suddenly grateful for his empty stomach. It doesn't stop him dry heaving.

Easy, Clint whispers, voice damp with blood, and Phil focuses on that as he struggles to find his breathing again, tuning out the quiet, contemplative laughter of Hans and his men.

Phil knows exactly what kind of people they’ve come across.

If SHIELD doesn't find them in the coming days, this is going to end with a retrieval team and two body bags, and as much as every agent is prepared for that possibility on any mission, Phil thinks to himself in the haze that he isn't prepared to see it happen to Clint.

***

The morning’s session is brief, and they’re left to drift half-conscious in the middle of the day. Hans calls it a learning experience: now they'll know exactly how long the pain sensitivity effects last after just one use, he says, and they'll know why not to refuse next time he asks. He's wrong to think that it's going to change their minds, but Phil does consider the hypersensitivity period useful information to have learned, in a detached, objective sense.

It takes until mid-afternoon for the hypersensitivity to fade, and they spend most of it in silence. Phil doesn’t want to risk the pain of talking, but more importantly, he knows if he gives Clint the excuse, he’ll start rambling to reassure Phil no matter how much it hurts.

When they can finally breathe peacefully again, Hans returns, staff in hand, and has his men pull Phil and Clint upright from the floor.

“So, what will it be, Agent Coulson?” Hans asks. “Same old song and dance about negotiation?”

“Second verse, same as the first,” Phil says, more focused on finding a less painful position for his wrists than answering the question.

“We’ll see,” Hans says, and snaps his fingers. One of his men drags Phil to a large crate and sits him up roughly against it, shoulders and bound wrists bruising against the wood.

“Hey!” Clint protests, struggling as the other two heave him across the floor on his knees, then shove him forward to fall against Phil. Clint sits up with effort, and Hans’ hand grabs his hair, holding his face directly in front of Phil’s.

“I wonder,” Hans says, “If you can maintain your conviction telling him that.”

“Gonna have to do better than that, Hans,” Clint says, meeting Phil’s eyes with a shaky grin. When he speaks, Phil can see blood smudged on his teeth from clamping down this morning. “I have kind of a reputation for annoying the hell out of this guy. You’re about to make his day.”

“What’s your answer, Agent Coulson?” Hans asks, letting go of Clint’s hair.

Clint holds steady in front of him, and Phil meets Clint’s eyes, a soft blue-grey he’s never seen this closely before. He looks down at Clint’s blood-dotted mouth to avoid his eyes, before he breathes in, holds it, watching Clint’s smile steady and widen proudly. It almost eases the guilt that weighs down Phil’s heart as he speaks, catching the blue-grey again.

“SHIELD agents don’t negotiate,” Phil says, slow and measured, without breaking eye contact. Behind Clint’s back, the carvings on the staff begin to glow. Under his breath, hurried, Phil says: “You’ll lose crowns if you keep gritting your teeth like that.” He barely tips his head to the side, baring the skin of his neck. “Bite.”

“What?” Clint whispers back, eyes flicking uncertainly downward.

Bite, Clint,” Phil says, and when the staff touches down, there’s an instant where their eyes still meet and Phil can see the pain flash through Clint’s face, before Clint’s head drops with the spasm of his muscles, and his teeth close hard on Phil’s throat.

Phil grits out a sound of pain with him as Clint’s jaw locks, teeth drawing blood, and the sting of it is Phil’s only relief, a fraction of what he’s just put Clint through. Even if he hadn’t experienced it himself, he would know what it's doing to Clint—this close, he can feel every shudder that goes through Clint’s body, every twitch, hear the hitch in his breath every few seconds.

The first minute is the solid lock of the magic's attack, and the next three are the aftershocks, Phil remembers from listening to Clint's screams earlier. He can feel it more than hear it, this time. Clint’s hold on his throat loosens one moment and clamps down again the next when the pain aftershock surges back, muscles twitching involuntarily as a few weak, pained sounds rise in his throat and hum into Phil's skin.

“Breathe,” Phil says, barely audible, close to Clint’s ear. Clint makes a more distinct noise in response, and breathes.

Phil is so focused on the rise of Clint’s chest, he doesn’t see the staff until it’s already pressing to his own shoulder. It rips through him again, and in the haze of tearing, clawing pain, his bitten throat feels like an exposed nerve, the pain so sharp and bright it twists sickly in his stomach. But the weight of Clint’s body slumped against his is warm, weighing him against the crate and holding him still in the spasms, and it anchors Phil in place.

He surfaces, gradually, into the heightened sensitivity and silence; Hans has left them again, for the moment. They sit perfectly still, afraid of the pain any kind of friction might bring, and manage to sync their breathing in a counter-rhythm to keep from pushing against each other when they do.

The sight of the pain in Clint’s eyes comes back to Phil, and as he listens to Clint’s ragged breathing, he starts to wonder if this is causing any permanent neurological damage. If it is, Phil doesn’t know how much of this they can survive.

For just a split second, Phil considers giving up the coordinates, and then Clint’s breathing stops for nearly a full two seconds and Phil is so lost in a sudden, overwhelming fear about that, he can't remember a single number.

***

At night, under the distant but watchful eyes of Hans’ trio of armed cronies, Phil drifts back in from brief, restless sleep.

His throat hurts, and the collar of his shirt rests stiff and uncomfortable against the marks there, still oversensitive and throbbing at a rub of the fabric, despite the symptoms fading from the rest of his body. Open, existing wounds seem to hold the effect longer, he notes, like it's going to do him much good. This may be a rare case where even having more intel can't help him the slightest bit.

Turning his head to shift the marks away from the shirt collar, he finds Clint sitting beside him against the crate, awake, with his eyes pinned guiltily to the marks on Phil’s neck.

Clint doesn’t say anything when he meets Phil’s eyes, and Phil can’t find anything to say at first, either. Phil manages a small shrug, mouth curving in a smile of acceptance; Clint blinks away, shaking his head at the floor.

“I told you to,” Phil says, voice hoarse. Clint doesn’t respond. “And it’s better than damage to your teeth. Exposed nerves intensified by that thing would—”

“I don’t care,” Clint says sharply. He sighs, refusing to look up from the floor. “I hurt you. I feel like shit, okay?”

Phil is taken aback; this is the kind of thing Clint usually shakes off. He should be back to joking and reassuring by now, shrugging it all away, not withdrawing.

“You’ve done worse in sparring,” Phil reminds him. Clint huffs out a brief, cynical laugh at the floor.

“I’ve been pulling punches with you from day one, Coulson,” he says. His mouth moves and it almost, very nearly, not quite makes it to a smile. “Or missing on purpose. Stopping short.”

Part of Phil is just slightly insulted, but considering how hard Clint hits when he's holding back, he’s maybe a little glad for it, in retrospect.

“And yet you still wiped the floor with me most of the time,” Phil notes. Clint shrugs minutely. “Why’d you let me spar with you if I wasn’t doing anything to challenge you?” he asks, and smirks at what comes to mind, trying to lighten the mood as he goes on. “Though, I suppose it must’ve been nice to knock me on my ass a few times after years of paperwork and lectures.”

“That’s not—” Clint starts, half-sighed in frustration, then presses his mouth shut.

Phil can’t remember the last time he saw Clint this deadly serious about something outside of combat. He swallows any further sarcastic comments and waits patiently, but Clint never finishes what he was going to say. Phil can guess, though, and it reminds him of the moment before Clint’s eyes widened an inch away from his, bright with pain.

“For the record,” Phil says quietly, “Seeing you in pain doesn’t ‘make my day’, either.”

Finally, Clint looks up at him, and Phil doesn’t really want to believe the surprise in Clint’s eyes at what he’s hearing. Clint can’t possibly think that with any kind of seriousness, and there’s no way Phil could have given him that kind of impression. Or, he hopes not, at least. Phil swallows uneasily—suppressing a wince when it makes the bite marks brush his shirt-collar again—frowning back at Clint.

“I don’t hate you, Barton,” he says evenly, trying to get it across as clearly as possible. Clint nods slowly, then smiles, just slightly.

“Y’know, you called me ‘Clint’ earlier,” he says, some of the spark back in his look. Phil makes a show of rolling his eyes, but he’s deeply, impossibly relieved to see Clint easing back to normal. “Just saying, I’m not gonna call you ‘Phil’. That would be...” he trails off with an exaggerated grimace. “Just sick and wrong.”

“Yes, it would,” Phil agrees.

Clint nods, and a moment later Phil can feel his eyes on the bite marks again. Glancing at the guards preoccupied in conversation, Clint hums, then almost imperceptibly leans toward Phil, pausing.

“Look, hold still a second, can I just... I’m not gonna do anything weird,” Clint says. “Tilt your head. Up and to your left.” Puzzled, Phil leans his head away from Clint, watching out of the corner of his eye as Clint leans in close.

He can feel the warmth of Clint’s breath against the front of Phil's throat, and then a pull at his shirtfront, a small tug as the top button yanks away in its threads. Clint spits it aside to the concrete, and then there’s a tug at Phil's collar as Clint’s teeth ease the fabric away from the marks on Phil’s neck, far enough it won’t brush against them again.

“Thank you,” Phil says, with faint surprise in his voice.

“Looked like it was bugging you,” Clint says as he leans back, his gaze stuck to the floor again. “Least I could do.”

Phil wants to, feels like he ought to, breathes in enough to hypothetically say—I don’t know how you can feel so responsible when all you did was bite me on orders, I’m the one whose refusal to negotiate got you tortured—but the words don’t come, because they know how this works. SHIELD agents don’t negotiate. At the end of the day, it’s SHIELD’s interests they have to protect, and SHIELD’s integrity, and SHIELD’s ability to function and protect the world. One agent is inconsequential.

There’s a reprimand in the back of his mind correcting the stakes: not just a SHIELD agent: Hawkeye, the Avenger. But Phil isn’t worried about that.

What worries Phil is the thought that came just a split-second before it, urging: not just a SHIELD agent, Clint.

Phil is just starting to think that he has to close himself off again, that he’s losing objectivity, except he can’t stop thinking of the surprise in Clint’s eyes at hearing seeing you in pain doesn’t make my day. So what Phil finally does do is sigh too heavily, and shuffle closer to Clint where they sit to press his shoulder against Clint’s, tipping his head back against the crate with a smirk, to bare his bite marks like a badge of honor for them both.

The guards begin to watch them closely again, and Phil resists looking over, keeping up appearances. The next time Phil has a chance to glance at him, Clint is asleep where he sits, and it looks restful, to Phil’s relief. He focuses on the steady presence of Clint’s shoulder against his and closes his eyes, hoping to catch some semblance of rest himself. At least, he figures, sleep will help him hold steady no matter what happens in the morning.

He’s wrong.

***

Phil is woken by a scream, and he’s terrified for Clint for a split second before the pain in his neck twists and sharpens and brightens, sickeningly familiar; the rest of the pain registers just as he realizes it’s his own voice he’s hearing.

Clint’s shoulder is not beside him, and that’s the only thing he has the presence of mind to notice before there’s a white-hot touch against his chest, and a second wave of pain arcs through and above and into an undercurrent beneath the first.

Pressure closes around Phil’s biceps, barely registering as a shape like hands before it carves like knives slicing into the roots of his nerves, and then Phil can’t hear anything at all.

The pain shudders through his blood and absorbs into his bones, filling the hollows in spongy cavities and twining like a million hairline fractures through the solid structures, and Phil is lost and gone and paralyzed with it, until he finds a way to be absolutely still, and waits in complete darkness, feeling the pain spark down the circuitry of his spine at the slightest motion.

It’s a long time before the world comes back to him, and when he does, it blurs thickly in front of his eyes, sound dragging in a haze around him without fully reaching his ears.

He knows the pain can’t have left him completely yet. Blinking hurts. Moving his jaw to try to pop his ears hurts worse. So he sits very still, and tries to wait it out.

“Are you awake now, Agent Coulson?” Hans asks. Phil forces himself to blink hard enough to clear his eyes, even when the muscles around his eyes feel like they’re shearing away from their connective tissue.

Hans stands directly in front of him, blocking the rest of the warehouse from Phil’s lowered view; they've put him in a chair, not secured, but also not likely to move anyway. Even with his limited range of sight, Phil doesn't like the looks of this.

“Feeling more talkative today?” he asks Phil, and Phil hopes talking won’t hurt as much as he thinks it will.

“No,” he answers, and the pain in his throat is worse than expected.

“I’m going to be charitable to you today,” Hans says. It’s a threat, not a kindness. “You see, we could keep doing this routine of using the staff and waiting for you to heal, or we could take a more direct route of interrogation.”

He steps aside, and in a cleared area of the warehouse in front of Phil, Clint stands, shaking legs unbound but arms still caught behind his back, and Hans’ three lackeys form a half-circle around him.

“How does it feel, being stung twice in a row?” Hans asks.

His knuckles touch Phil’s forehead, and Phil can tell he’s barely even touching but the pain bursts through his head like he’s been shot, like his whole skull is trying to compress and is shattering in on itself, fragments breaking off and tearing through his scalp. Phil gulps in air to calm himself, tell himself it’s just a touch.

“Your friend is still on the edges of two strikes, as well,” Hans says. “My men are going to spend a bit of time with him, and if at any time you’d like us to stop, just give me the coordinates, and it all stops. Understood?”

Phil understands. He understood from the second word Hans said. Not “colleague”, not “fellow agent”, not “partner”, not “subordinate”.

Your friend.

They’re doing this because they realized, because Phil didn’t guard himself closely enough. They’ve seen Phil’s hesitation and they’ve seen their shoulders touch, and maybe it was the bite marks on Phil’s neck, the invitation to share some small piece of the pain.

And even if all of that is true—even if they are slightly closer than any two random agents in the field, even if this is Clint, even if this is someone who could worry sick over bite marks and forgive being an accessory to torture—they are still agents of SHIELD.

“SHIELD agents don’t negotiate,” Phil says, voice shaking.

One of Hans’ men cracks his knuckles. Clint, legs trembling to hold him upright, just locks eyes with Phil and smiles, broad and proud and understanding, and Phil’s heart sinks as he watches the man’s fist draw back.

The punch connects and the sound Clint makes isn’t so much pained as surprised, eyes wide in shock and balance lost as he staggers, one knee buckling under him. When it hits the floor, he cries out sharply like someone just splintered his kneecap; the sound has barely died out before someone’s boot catches him flat in the chest.

When his back and his bound arms hit the floor, he yelps at the impact, arches up, trying to roll onto his side. Phil can see Clint’s face, eyes wide and frantic as he struggles to get his feet under him again, wincing at every scrape of the floor’s concrete grit. Clint can’t move fast enough, never had a chance.

Someone fists their hand in Clint’s hair and grabs his shoulder with the other hand, hauling him up and drawing a yell Clint barely clenches his teeth over. He’s pushed up onto his feet again and the man has a hold on his wrists, holding him up, nodding. One of the other two steps in, pulling back for another punch, and this time Clint’s eyes follow the hand drawing back, eyes widening in fear.

The right hook strikes hard across his jaw and his whole body jerks on impact, mouth clamped shut around the strangled noise. Clint’s eyes squeeze shut and he drops his head down, spits blood to the floor, his whole body trembling. He desperately gasps in air, wheezing, and more blood drips from his mouth.

There’s a left hook winding back that Clint can’t see, and Phil tries to warn him, but pain carves into his neck as Hans' fingers clamp down against the bites to silence him, sharp and nauseating like he’s rubbing his calluses into a pulp of nerves. The punch hits, landing agains the side of Clint’s head, and the man behind him lets go just a second before, letting the strike knock Clint aside. He tumbles to the floor, face scraping against the concrete. Clint writhes, twists onto his front for leverage.

“Stubborn, isn’t he,” Hans remarks, and Phil’s heart hammers in his chest like a blow to his ribs, punishing.

Yeah, Phil thinks, watching Clint struggle to put his knees under his body again. More stubborn than anyone else I’ve ever met.

Clint won’t give up.

They’ll do this until they're ordered to stop, or they kill him, whatever comes first.

Phil swallows a set of coordinates and presses his mouth tightly shut, only to hold back the information and not at all because it’s helping him keep his composure.

The men let Clint get as far as having one foot under him, then laugh and yank him up onto his feet again, leaving him stumbling, glancing around directionlessly like he’s not even sure where he is right now. Another punch readies and no, no, no Phil thinks helplessly, watching it connect, knuckling into the side of his face where the concrete tore the skin.

This time, Clint screams.

He staggers, falls right into the arc of another punch, and it drops him to his knees with a ragged, strangled sound. His breath catches as he gasps in, coughs more blood to the floor. Two sets of thick hands grab his shoulders, push him harder down on his knees, holding him still. The man approaching behind him looks at a point above Phil’s face, then grins, drawing a pocketknife from his belt.

"Yes, by all means," Hans laughs. "One of my men," he adds more quietly, for Phil's benefit, "Has a fondness for knives. If you feel more free with the coordinates watching him work, feel free to let me know."

Phil silently mouths the first three numbers of a longitudinal coordinate and bites his lip until his teeth break through to a well of blood, and in the hypersensitivity it cuts down through his mouth, his throat, his chest, making him suck in a breath so sharp it aches.

Clint’s head lifts, eyes meeting Phil’s, and it makes Clint's wandering gaze focus in on him. Coordinates, Phil mouths, ready to put a stop to this if he has to. Clint glares resolutely back, blood leaking from the corners of his mouth, set in a firm line. The man with the knife kneels behind him as the hands at his shoulders move to rip at his shirt, pulling it open and shoving it down to expose his back.

SHIELD or not, Phil has to stop this. He breathes in with purpose, and Clint shakes his head.

“Don’t you dare, Coulson,” Clint grits out across the space between them, his voice low and wavering, “Don’t you fucking dare, not one word, you’re better than that—”

And then his head snaps back and he’s keening through his teeth, eyes squeezing shut at a slow motion the man with the knife is making.

“Shallow,” Hans threatens from his place behind Phil’s chair. “Barely enough to leave a scar, remember?”

The man with the knife smirks. Clint’s eyes open wide, chest fluttering with quick gasps for breath, a moment’s respite before he’s screaming through bloodied teeth, biting red holes into the corner of his mouth.

Phil strains forward in the chair and Hans tightens his hold on Phil’s throat, digging fingernails into the scabs of the bite that drew blood. The world spins out for a moment, and when Phil blinks back in with bile hinting at the back of his throat, it’s to Clint’s voice, not even held back by his teeth anymore.

The next unseen drag of the knife pulls a broken cry from Clint, mouth dropped open and jaw tight, eyes shut and wet at the corners. When he breathes in the stillness that follows, it catches, hiccuping in the silence, and the men laugh.

“No results yet,” Hans sighs. “Bring him over.”

The other two nod the one with the knife away. He scowls at them, but with one last flick of the knife against Clint’s back, he stands and returns it to his belt. The men haul Clint to his feet, each with an arm hooked under one arm to push purposefully against the wounds on Clint’s back.

Hans shoves Phil forward off the chair, dropping him to his hands and knees on the floor. The slap and cut of the concrete is like fire in Phil’s hands, crushing through his knees, but he pushes himself up. They let Clint drop onto the floor in front of him, and Phil throws his weight forward so that Clint, too battered and disoriented to get his balance, falls against Phil’s front and not the floor.

“Steady,” Phil whispers.

Clint’s only sound is a slow inward breath, and Phil takes that as an affirmative. Then there’s a hand in Clint’s hair, yanking him up, and Phil can see the bruises smoothing on the angles of his face, the blood smeared bright and heavy across his mouth. Clint's eyes blink open with effort, finding Phil's and holding there.

“Tell him that policy once more for me, Agent Coulson,” Hans says.

Phil leans in and rests his forehead against Clint’s, drawing in as steady a breath as he can from the contact, and he finds Clint’s eyes determined and still holding some light. He doesn't know how much more of this Clint can survive.

“SHIELD,” Phil starts, and falters.

“That’s it,” Clint says, barely audible, and forcing out his voice flecks his faintly-smiling lips with blood from somewhere in his mouth. Phil stares back at him in disbelief, at the sincerity in Clint’s blue-grey eyes like this is what he wants, like SHIELD’s pride is worth this.

Phil stops that thought in its tracks. No, not SHIELD’s pride.

"You’re better than that."

Not SHIELD's, never SHIELD’s. Clint’s holding out and letting himself be tortured, brutalized, all for the sake of Phil’s pride, Phil's honor as an agent of SHIELD. Phil’s breath catches, his mouth opening helplessly, and Clint close his eyes, tilts in, so close to Phil’s face the blood on their split lips could almost mix.

“—Agents don’t negotiate,” Clint murmurs, passing him the words. Phil swallows the numbers rising in his throat and closes his eyes.

“SHIELD agents don’t negotiate,” Phil says quickly, and he already knows what’s next, surges forward in regret just as they’re grabbing Clint’s arms at his back and tearing him away. But Phil is too late, helpless again, and he falls through empty air onto the floor, bruising the side of his face on the concrete.

He watches them shove Clint onto his front on the floor, and Clint meets Phil’s eyes. He gives one last weak smile before he turns his face away, and just as he does, someone’s boot grinds down against the thin red lacerations spiderwebbed across his shoulders, muscles spasming with breathing and gasping and pain beneath the tread.

Phil understands. Clint knows his limits, and he doesn’t want Phil to see his face when he's reached them. This isn’t why yet; Phil already knows what Clint looks like when he’s screaming, they’ve handled interrogations before.

But Phil understands that Clint doesn’t want Phil to see his face when the screams die out, when someone's boot is dragging a wound open wider on Clint's back and someone else lands a kick just under his ribs, and he’s only gulping in air to sob it brokenly out into the blood he's coughed onto the floor.

The knife is out again to drag a line down his front where Phil can't see, and the sobbing weakens into frantic, gurgled breathing and whimpering, until someone’s heel jabs in at his back and blood pours out around his shoulder blade, and Clint Barton, who’s never stopped talking a day in his life, finally falls silent.

***

The hours after the moment Clint goes quiet are a blur to Phil.

Phil struggles in his ropes against the concrete, trying to move, but fingers clutch tight on the side of his neck and he’s screaming wordlessly, until the pain spirals sickening and heavy into the pit of his stomach and the nausea chokes off his voice. He dry heaves into unconsciousness; sleep is silent, and Phil is alone, and these two things that Phil used to enjoy have never been more terrifying to him.

His eyes open again after a slow drag of minutes or hours or days, he doesn’t know anymore. He winces at the sting in his mouth from biting everywhere, the ache in his jaw from falling on the floor. At the right side of his vision, there’s a familiar filled space, and rather than look expecting the worst case-scenario, Phil fearfully closes his eyes and listens, lungs tightening to hold him completely still.

He waits.

And finally, in the near silence, he picks it up: shallow, thready breathing.

Phil shakily sighs, swallowing the avoided panic, and turns, finding Clint slumped beside him, alive, if barely. His head is bowed, chin dropped down to his chest, which can’t be helping his breathing. First things first, Phil tells himself to keep calm about this, about what happened, about everything. Open the airway.

Maneuvering to put his back to Clint, Phil uses what little leverage he can get with Clint’s shirt—still slipped down to show his back and thankfully easy to find purchase on—to turn Clint by degrees until his back is to Phil’s.

“Easy,” Phil says to himself, as he leans forward enough so Clint's body rests against his back, and Clint’s head tips back from his chest, thumping gently against Phil's shoulder. Head back, chin up, airway open. Clint seems to be pulling in a little more air now, and Phil heaves a sigh of relief. There isn’t much else he can do to help him.

Keeping Clint’s head in place, Phil sidles carefully back to rest his bound wrists against Clint’s, and feels for Clint’s hand. At the very least, when he wakes up, he’ll know where Phil is, and if he’s got his wits about him, he’ll know to keep his head still.

Phil twines his fingers through to grip Clint’s limp, unmoving hand, and Phil squeezes once, hoping somehow, some kind of reassurance might reach him.

Closing his eyes, Phil tips his head forward to his chest to keep from weighing it against the cuts on Clint’s shoulders, and ignores the way it tightens his breathing.

He’ll manage.

And of course he will, he thinks bitterly, he’s Phil Coulson of SHIELD isn’t he?

His stomach twists, and he bites at the scabbing split in his lip. He's nothing here. All his knowledge, all his planning, all his skill, and he can't do anything to help Clint. All he's done is give the same old answer to Hans and watch Clint suffer for it, and Clint has urged him on, like a research outpost is more important than an Avenger's well-being, than his life.

But Clint never cared whether he was Specialist Barton or Agent Barton or Hawkeye. Phil has been writing his mission reports for years, and Clint has always treated himself as less important than the mission, always given himself up to capture or harm or possible death rather than compromise the objective or any other personnel. Putting himself last isn't a function of what Clint Barton does, it's who he is. And no one has ever been able to convince him otherwise.

Even Phil, who's been going out to eat with Clint after long missions, and letting Clint belt out ABBA songs in the car, and letting Clint sleep on his couch after bar brawls, had all of his appreciation answered by Clint thinking Phil might be relieved to see him in pain. Phil always had some inkling Clint had an issue or two lurking beneath his cocky act, but to let himself be beaten and butchered like this just to preserve Phil's honor, Clint can't just be reckless—he really must think he's worthless.

Phil never noticed.

God, has anyone?

And now, because Phil is useless here, just had to drag Clint off for the weekend on some sentimental last trip together, had to put off calling SHIELD at the diner, had to keep repeating the old line instead of just giving up the research outpost, Clint might die out here, and no one will ever know why those notes are in his files, or the fact that Clint felt worse about causing Phil the most minor of injuries—on Phil's orders—than Phil did about continuously letting Clint be tortured by the enemy.

Tears of frustration swell hot in the back of Phil's throat, and he swallows them, swallows them further, then swallows them and the slick of blood from his freshly torn lip, until the sound of Clint’s breathing on his shoulder reminds him that if their backs are to each other, Clint won’t see the signs when he wakes up. Even if he did, maybe he would understand.

Phil lets Clint’s gradually steadying breathing lull his overwhelming frustration into overwhelming shame, and when his throat aches from swallowing the tears down, he keeps his head bowed and closes his eyes, letting them fall.

It makes him think of Clint hiding his face in the last of the onslaught, and he curls his fingers around Clint’s at their backs, tensing his shoulders so that when they threaten to shake, it won’t stir Clint from his rest.

***

The sound of rain on the warehouse roof drags Phil slowly out of sleep, drifting between exhaustion and half-consciousness for a hazy stretch of time. His thoughts are directionless at first, but the past two days start to catch up to him, panic crawling into his thoughts in a slow internal bleed as he tries to remember why.

Before it can hit, he feels weight on his shoulder and light pressure in the spaces between his fingers, and when he listens beneath the rain, he hears weak breathing near his ear. Clint is still here. Still alive.

“Too stubborn to die,” Phil says through the scraping feeling in his throat, and smiles.

He opens his eyes, just in time to see Hans and his men rounding the corner at a distant wall of crates, their footsteps heavy and a dangerous look spread across their faces. One of the men looks at Hans, asking something, and Hans shakes his head.

“Essentials. Carry what you can,” Hans tells them. He waves two of the men away to an unseen point and then gestures, staff in hand, for the third to follow him as they advance on Phil and Clint’s position.

Phil locks eyes with Hans, leaning his head up to put what little of himself he can between them and Clint.

“Save your rebellion for later,” Hans says, as they kneel on either side of Phil and Clint. To Phil’s surprise, Hans cuts through the ropes binding Phil’s ankles.

Clint’s head leaves his shoulder, and Phil lets go of his hand, pain flicking through his wrists at the careless slicing of the knife through the rope. Hans grabs Phil by the arm and jerks him up from the floor, then plants his hand across the back of Phil’s skull and shoves Phil’s head against the stack of crates, knocking the world off-balance and browning out Phil’s vision for a moment.

Phil leans on the crates to get his balance, blinking hard to focus on the other man pulling Clint up. Clint’s eyes are open, half-lidded, staring blankly. He’s breathing, but he doesn’t seem to be conscious. The man pulls Clint’s arm around his shoulder, muttering about dead weight, and Hans points him to the far side of the warehouse.

“Walk,” Hans orders Phil. Phil stumbles, vision still bruised from the earlier impact—Hans apparently doesn't want him wandering off—but it’s close enough to walking.

The other two men follow, then pass them, carrying bags more suited to supplies than weapons. This is an evacuation; they’ve been found. But considering Hans and his men shot up the clearing and took out the gun runners, there’s already bad blood in the arms deals. It could be another gang here to settle the score or take the spoils.

Cold fear settles in Phil’s chest when he realizes that includes him and Clint.

They wind through a maze of crates—designed to give them an upper hand over any intruders, clever—to reach the wall, where the men walking ahead push aside a large box blocking an exit door. With some effort, they lever the door open, and wind and rain lashes in through the opening. They push out into the storm, the third man following, and the familiar pressure of the staff leans between Phil’s shoulder blades, warning.

The men cross the space between the warehouse and the forest’s edge, stepping carefully between two trees and into the thick of the woods. They move quickly, but not frantically, and they don’t have to pause to clear anything; this is a path they already made. Hans and his men are used to working in this forest.

Phil tries to call up the map, how close they were to the border when the gun runners blew the car, but it doesn’t help much when he realizes he doesn’t know how long they walked to get from the clearing to the warehouse. It could have been hours, miles into Canadian territory. Considering how deserted and well-trodden this path is, and that they were uninterrupted on their hike to get here, Phil is beginning to think the patrols here have been paid off.

Clint was telling a story about disgraced Mounties before it all went to hell, wasn’t he?

Phil rests his gaze on Clint’s back, watching the red-stained, uneven sway of his white shirt as he’s pulled along by one of Hans’ men. The trees above them slightly buffer the storm from the forest floor, but Phil is still shivering, and he wonders if Clint, catatonic or otherwise, can feel the chill, too.

“Stop at the clearing,” Hans shouts over the storm, and the men ahead break out through the trees into a small patch of grass, much smaller than the site of the shootout. Phil follows them through the bent undergrowth. “Agent Coulson, do you know who’s come looking for us? Any guesses?”

“More thugs who followed your blood trail from the rendezvous point?” Phil asks, and Hans laughs loudly over the rain.

The point of the staff thrusts hard between Phil’s shoulders, knocking him forward onto the grass. He catches himself on his hands, but one of Hans’ men grabs him by the shoulders before he can get up, shoving him down onto his knees. Clint is pushed down next to Phil, head lolling downward and arms limp at his sides, eyes staring dimly at the ground.

“We’re sending a message to your superiors, Agent Coulson,” Hans says, grinning. “If you give me the coordinates, the message will be a raid on the research station. If you don’t, the message will be a pair of bodies.”

Beside him, even over the rain and wind and a low threat of thunder, Phil hears the sound of a handgun’s hammer cocking, and turns his head to watch the muzzle of the gun press in at the base of Clint’s skull.

Phil knows what his answer has to be; he can't give up the information after everything Clint gave to protect it. And Phil knows was always a possibility in working for SHIELD, especially being in the field as often as they have. Phil has always been ready to give his life for the cause if need be.

But he isn't ready to give up Clint's without a fight. If this is the last chance he gets to keep Clint alive, even a moment longer, he'll take it, and it will have been the very least he could do.

"SHIELD agents," Phil starts evenly, as he discreetly leverages the sole of one shoe against the ground, clenching his bound hands in focus.

That, and after all of Clint's stubbornness and his refusal to give up on Phil these past three days, these past years together, Phil won't give up on him, either.

"...don't negotiate," Phil finishes, and then throws himself to the side.

He slams his shoulder against Clint's to shove him aside, pushing his own body into the space where Clint knelt, and the shot rings out like an explosion in his ear, pain tearing through the back of his neck and blood pouring hot on his shoulder.

Phil feels the ground rise to hit him, and blinks up into rain at an endless stretch of grey sky, unable to move, listening to Hans' men laugh. Phil gasps wetly, taking in no air. His throat is full of blood, choking and thick and tasting vaguely of rain as it wells up to his mouth. Through his throat. Must have nicked an artery at the very best and blown straight through one at worst.

One of the men flips Phil over with his boot, pushes him to roll limply away, and it seems Hans and his men are enjoying the spectacle so much, they don't catch what Phil sees from his position on the rain-soaked ground.

Clint's head lifts from his slump, wide-eyed and fully aware, staring at Phil, not at his eyes but lower at his torn throat. Shaking, Clint's fingers curl against the ground, red-smeared teeth showing as he takes an unsteady breath, and there's no pause for thought, only instinct. Clint's fingers tighten, and then he shoves one foot beneath him and reaches up with one hand, fingers closing around the barrel of gun near the back of his head. He pulls it down, free of the surprised man's grip, and tucks it close to his body as he rolls sharply away across the ground, coming up kneeling just out of reach.

The hand not holding the gun snaps back and then whips forward at the wrist, and one of the men screams, clutching at one eye, blood gushing out between his fingers as a small rock falls from his palm. By the time he stumbles back, Clint has already turned the gun in his hands, and his face is deadly calm as he fires three shots, punching an identical bloody gap through each of their foreheads.

Clint stands from his crouch, wheeling to face something behind where Phil lies, outside of Phil's field of vision.

"Shoot me," Hans threatens, "And I'll make his last moments agony."

Without hesitating for even an instant, Clint silently raises the gun and fires twice.

A body falls heavy behind Phil. Clint lowers the gun, just as a strange static feeling rises in the air behind Phil, somehow foreboding, static building and threatening lightning, pain, pushing a resonance into the air that's only stronger in the rhythm of the rain on Phil's skin. Phil watches Clint's blank expression turn wary.

Then a solid, razor-thin stream of blue light shoots from behind Phil, piercing through Clint’s body just above his hip.

Stunned, Clint goes rigid where he stands, staring down at the light for the long seconds until it stutters out. When it does, he weighs down suddenly, gritting his teeth in visible pain and keeping his balance. He clamps his hand over the point of entry, staggering forward towards Phil with purpose. He drops to his knees, reaching out with a desperate look in his eyes, and watching his hand near Phil's jaw, Phil sees a haze around his fingers that isn't the rain.

"Please let this work," Clint chokes out so quietly Phil can hardly hear it, his voice muffled behind his teeth and rough from screaming. "C'mon, fuck, please work."

The air between them buzzes and polarizes and when he touches, there’s a spark of something that makes Phil’s vision blank out into nothing but blue.

Then the hole in Phil's pulse is peeling from a scorch of fire, is raw from a prison of ice, is screaming with an arc of lightning under his skin, and the blood in his throat is stone and ash and rain. Finally, it’s only rain, welling up cool and soothing over the corners of his mouth. The blood at his neck no longer pours, but trickles.

Phil feels Clint's hand lift from his neck, but he can't get his eyes to open. His voice won't work, and he can't breathe for the rain flooding his mouth, but he coughs weakly, and that's all it takes. Hands grip Phil's shoulders and pull him up from the ground, then smooth around to circle his back and pin him tightly to Clint's chest. Clint buries his face in Phil's shoulder, his cheek pressing into the blood-drenched curve of Phil's neck.

Clint is repeating something in a low, unbroken tone, barely audible in the rain and incomprehensible with shaking. His shoulders heave with a raw gasp and he pulls Phil closer, speaking close to Phil's ear, his mouth wet with rain and Phil's blood as he says, brokenly—"Phil."

Phil wants to listen, wants to hear Clint say it again and again to be sure, because no one's ever said Phil's name like he was worth that kind of emotion, like he was irreplaceable, and it makes Phil's chest ache in a way he's long forgotten. He wants to hear it again when they get back to SHIELD, where it’s safe.

But that's reason enough for Phil to know he never can.

This happened because they became "Clint" and "Phil". Because they wanted, because they let themselves, because they were reckless enough to think they could ever survive like this—and this time, they almost didn't. Phil can't let this happen to Clint again. He can't ever get this close again, no more stepping out together after work, no more laughing conversations en route to assignments, no more visiting the range or waking up in his office to cups of fresh coffee left on his desk.

No matter how much he’s going to miss it, and miss him, and no matter how much it’s going to hurt, if it keeps him safe, Phil will give it all up.

So he tunes out Phil, Phil, Phil at his ear, and silently repeats to himself, Not Clint. Barton.

Just Barton.

The hold on him loosens just slightly, and Phil's arm hangs down to the grass, brushing something smooth on the ground.

There's a resonance under Phil's fingers, a low hum in the back of his mind, and the spaces of his fingertips are static and vibrating and hot all at once. His head swims.

He isn't sure where they are.

It all drains away from him in a weak trickle, bits of memory running into cracks and out of reach.

He can't remember what he's doing here.

Sounds and places and sensations fade out, drawn from him slowly, as if they're purposefully being taken away.

He doesn't know why he's still, and then doesn't know why he's moving, steady arms wrapped around him and carrying him on uneven ground.

Barton, says an echoing thought, and then he's being laid gently on the ground, head turned gently to the side, rain pouring down onto him.

When he opens his eyes, there’s a fading strange feeling in his fingertips and a static hum in the back of his mind, and only thing he remembers is that it's been raining.

Wet grass bristles under his hands, the ground hard at his back. His ears are ringing faintly under the rumble of thunder; above him, the clouds are—

+

—grey and endless, pouring out a soft, windless rain that sinks cool into his bloodied clothes.

Phil lifts a hand from the ground and touches three fingers and a space to the scar on his neck, and when he blinks, everything is blue for an instant, vibration under his fingertips as deep, resonant sound pools in the back of his skull.

Phil knows exactly where he is.

Slowly he pushes himself up from the ground, and pushes his hands through the thick carpet of dirt and leaves and fragments of two months of the forest, until his hands unearth what they brushed when he fell. Phil runs his fingers over intricate carvings, wraps his hands around the circle of it, and lifts an impossible density from the forest floor, cradling the staff across the crook of his arms.

His eyes fix on the worn grey lines of the carvings, remembering what they look like when they light blue, and when the colors bleed together in his mind, all he can think of is soft blue-grey eyes and a bloodied mouth close to his, giving Phil the strength to let the enemy brutalize him for no better reason than his own lack of worth.

Phil steadies himself on his feet and starts down a gently worn-down path in the forest, and the weight of the staff reminds Phil of his purpose.

He knows what he has to do.

+

The warehouse looms through the branches ahead, its closest door directly ahead as Phil steps out from between the trees. His thoughts grate against each other, still reconciling the recovered memories with the past two months, but his body pushes forward across the space with single-minded purpose, exhaustion soothed by the light, cool rain stroking his clothes down against his skin, calming.

He's ready.

He opens the door to the pitch-black warehouse, walking in with one hand outstretched to feel for any crates, and he gropes his way through the anti-intruder maze, holding the staff close to his body. When he rounds a corner, the lights high above buzz quietly, glowing faint orange as they warm.

Phil leans against the stack of crates beside him and waits, watching the lights slowly brighten, spreading and casting shadows, finally catching on a single figure in the center of the open space.

It’s Barton, but Phil already knows it’s not, even before Loki turns around to show the green in Barton’s eyes.

"Agent Coulson," Loki says, long beyond bothering to imitate Barton’s voice.

“You’ve got a real flair for the dramatic,” Phil says wearily, glancing up at the lights. He isn’t here to fight, and he leans the staff against the crates nearby, putting it out of play as he smiles placidly and utterly non-threateningly at Loki. “I brought what you came looking for.”

"So I suspected," Loki says. “I was going to take Hawkeye for a little walk, but I felt a surge of magic in the woods, and you always have been an irritation in my plans.” He smirks. “What now, Agent Coulson? Brilliant plan to save the day?”

In response, Phil shakes his head slowly. Loki looks puzzled, and Phil's smile weakens to let the words pass.

"I’m not here to stop you, Loki.” Phil nods towards the staff. “I’m surrendering this to you.” Loki, understandably, gives Phil a suspicious look. "You can have the artifacts and take magic," Phil says. "All I want is for Hawkeye to return to the Avengers alive."

"Realized the futility of fighting back, have you?" Loki asks.

“No point,” says Phil, and his own voice sounds hollow. He bows his head, ashamed of the words he’s about to say. “I’m here to tell you that you’ve won, Loki.”

Loki is quiet, then coldly says: “I don’t believe you.” Phil looks up in alarm, and finds Loki watching him with a lofty expression, completely out of character on Barton’s face and making Phil all the more desperate to see him gone. “All of your fanfare about no negotation, and now you’ve come all this way to surrender?”

“What do I have to do to prove it?” Phil asks quietly.

Loki blinks at him, then looks thoughtful, eyes wandering down to the floor.

“If you’ve come to surrender, then humble yourself appropriately,” Loki says. Without hesitation, Phil closes his eyes and sinks down onto his knees, breathing in to speak. "Bow lower," Loki says coldly.

"I apologize," Phil says quietly. He leans forward, resting his forehead against the floor. "And I surrender," Phil says, loudly enough that he’s sure Loki can hear him.

“You are powerless, Agent Coulson,” Loki reminds him. “Or, nearly. You could still muster a gun against me with your weak hand—unless you would surrender that advantage, as payment for Hawkeye’s return.”

Phil doesn’t care anymore; there’s nothing left for him to do, when he’s finished here. He holds out his left hand, not even bothering to consider it first. Loki laughs in Barton’s voice, incredulous.

“I said you were pathetic, but I never realized the depths you could sink to,” Loki says, grabbing Phil’s hand tightly to hold it still. “Honestly, you mortals. Do you think you’re being noble, rushing in and sacrificing yourselves in turns?”

Loki holds Phil’s hand up by his index finger and wrist, extending the finger to show the joint. Whatever blade he carries, it’s small, and impossibly sharp, and when he cuts through with a sudden, bright pain through the thickness of the finger, he sighs as if put-upon, apparently deaf to Phil’s strangled sound of pain. And Phil is in pain, but with Manitoba and the staff this fresh in his mind, everything else seems like a scratch.

“Yes, Hawkeye, I’ll let you,” Loki says patiently as he closes his fingers over the space left behind, a familiar static tingle creeping into the wound and dulling the pain, knitting the skin over again. “It’s only going to hurt you worse when the magic leaves you.”

Which reminds Phil of something else, something he expects he’s going to regret for a moment.

“Loki, the seal—the seal holding the magic back. I remember seeing it broken.” He grits his teeth at the last of the pain from his other index finger, tries not to think about it. “Is it going to be the same this time?”

“It’s a magic I cannot bend,” Loki says. “You’re concerned, of course.”

“You can heal him, I saw you fix his shoulder in the apartment,” Phil starts, and then a heavy impact hits the floor beside him; he turns his head to find Barton collapsed on the floor, and dark boots and dark robes in the corner of his vision.

“If you have a favor to ask of Loki Laufeyson, ask properly,” Loki says, his own voice returned.

A boot rests on the back of Phil’s neck, pushing his face down against the concrete. Skin shears from his forehead, blood thinly leaking onto the floor. Beside Phil, Barton is breathing faintly, and it keeps him focused.

"This lowly mortal humbly asks you, Loki Laufeyson, to spare Hawkeye's life.”

"Beg, Phil Coulson of SHIELD," Loki commands.

Phil swallows the humiliation and nods his scraped skin against the floor. This is what’s left of the pride of SHIELD.

And that’s what Phil wants. If there’s nothing left of SHIELD’s pride or his own in him, no value left to him in either of his hands, no usefulness, then he doesn’t have to worry about any of this happening again. He’s not worth sacrificing anything for, not even from Barton’s skewed perspective.

"Please," Phil says. "I beg of you. I'm at your mercy."

"Not good enough." Loki's boot grinds down again, concrete biting into Phil's chin and his jaw, then moves away, catching under his chin to lift his eyes to Loki's. "Again."

Phil breathes shallowly, airway bruising from Loki's boot. He stares up at Loki's eyes, green and cold and fixed on him, and doesn’t even feel the shame anymore. This is nothing compared to watching Hans’ men tear into Barton.

"Please," Phil repeats, and wishes it were the pressure on his throat that's making his voice shake and his eyes burn.

Loki looks down at him for a long pause, then draws his boot away, letting Phil's head drop to the floor. Phil winces, but doesn't raise any part of himself from the floor.

"I suppose," Loki says slowly, "Your good manners and the destruction of your little mortal life as you know it will serve as a worthy price for this favor. You may rise." Phil slowly pushes himself up to rest on his knees, and Loki gestures to the prone figure beside him, smiling. "Now, if you would kindly break the seal, Agent Coulson."

Phil should have expected that.

He nods slowly, watching the barest hints of Barton’s breathing, and he’s struck by a thought that pulls something tight in his chest.

"Is he... right now, is the pain sensitivity...?”

Loki just smiles, confirmation enough.

Phil gently slides his hands under Barton’s broad shoulders, concrete rubbing skin from his fingers as he tries to be careful. Barton is barely conscious, eyes closed, but awake enough to react; lifting him gets a catch of breath and a hiss of pain through teeth.

“Sorry,” Phil murmurs.

Phil props him up against the crates nearby, then draws his gun, fumbling a shaky, weak hold around the grip with two pairs of fingers, then extending one of his middle fingers to the trigger. He starts to speak, then closes his eyes and sighs slowly.

There’s no point to that anymore.

Phil lets go.

"Clint,” he says softly, and he wants to say it again and again, but he’s not sure he’ll have any right to, after this. “Clint, if you can hear me, brace yourself. This is going to hurt."

Still nothing. Phil presses the muzzle of the gun to Clint's front, where the beam's entry wounds seared in. He carefully leans forward to where Clint’s head is bowed, so Clint's teeth rest against the scars on his neck, and Phil takes a steadying breath for them both.

“God, I’m sorry,” Phil tells him, and it’s about everything but what he’s preparing to do.

He pulls the trigger.

The shot is impossibly loud between their bodies. Blood coats Phil’s hands, spatters back onto his front and his arms. Clint screams against his neck, teeth clenched and drawing a creep of blood down Phil’s throat.

Blue and yellow light pours from the wounds on either side, flowing away to where Loki waits. Phil doesn't turn to watch, just throws the gun aside—it’s no use to him anymore—and lets himself feel Clint’s teeth in his neck until footsteps approach them.

"Well done," Loki says, stepping in and pressing his hands to the exit and entry wounds.

Phil watches the bloodflow gradually stop, and doesn’t once look at Loki. When the wounds are closed, Loki steps back.

“Remember this well, Agent Coulson,” Loki says with a smile in his voice. “Hawkeye is a mortal, and magic burned too long inside his body; he cannot escape it untouched. Take him and the spaces of your hands back to SHIELD and show them the price of standing against me.”

The air hums, static and ozone and a brilliant mix of blue and yellow light casting out through the warehouse, mixing into an ethereal green.

Then Loki is gone, artifacts and magic in hand, victorious.

It’s over.

This, all of this, is over.

Clint makes a low, hurt sound against Phil’s neck, alive and safe for now, and it grounds Phil again. His teeth have let go of Phil’s neck, and he’s gone quiet except his breathing, slow and evening out as he slips into sleep.

The sensitivity hasn’t faded completely yet, so Phil sits against the crates beside him, shoulders barely touching to avoid any unnecessary painful contact. Phil watches him breathe for a moment, steady in sleep, then looks away.

He’s learned by now that it doesn’t matter whether he runs or reaches, when it comes to this feeling he has about Clint; it never changes. He’s not going to fight it anymore. But his feelings don’t really matter, after what he’s done. If Clint wakes up and never meets his eyes again, Phil will have earned that. As long as Clint is safe, it’s worth anything Phil possibly has left to give up.

And he is safe, except the memory of what he’s suffered. Including the memory of Manitoba he’s carried completely alone for so long. Phil had it easy, these past two months.

"I'm sorry," Phil says uselessly, and the only response is the rhythm of Clint’s breathing, which is all he needs to hear. "I'm so sorry. About everything."

It’s the last thing he needed to do here, or anywhere.

He’s finished.

The exhaustion burns through him with a slow creep of finality, and he slumps against the crates and closes his eyes in the silence.

Phil Coulson of SHIELD is gone.

Defeated, humbled, de-clawed, and alone, carved down to simply Phil, he is small, and swallowed up by sleep.

+++

Phil dreams that the cell SHIELD makes up for him is quiet, at least. He can read, and sleep. They give him a pen and paper to sort out his thoughts, but it feels more like a mockery than anything else, and he holds the pen in three fingers and a thumb, writing crooked letters before giving up.

It all comes to him with a dull sense of acceptance, until the darkness starts to fade in around the cell and there’s a voice calling out to him from far away.

Coulson.

There’s no point in getting up. He’ll go where he’s directed, and if he has to be dragged there, he won’t complain.

Coulson, wake up.

He closes his eyes tighter.

Phil, the voice pleads, and it weakens him.

Phil blinks awake reluctantly, finding grey-blue eyes in front of his, wide and scared, melting into relief as Clint smiles shakily and says: "Hey."

“Barton,” Phil says steadily, and doesn’t manage to smile back.

Clint doesn’t say anything else, just closes his mouth tightly and swallows. Phil doesn’t know where to begin, either. He asks the only question he needs to, at this point.

“Not dying anymore?” he asks Clint.

Clint shakes his head, his weak smile widening just slightly.

“Loki said there could be some aftereffects, but it won’t kill me,” Clint says. He glances uneasily around the warehouse, then back at Phil. “Look, I know we got a lot to talk about, but for now, can we just get out of here?”

“Right,” is all Phil says in response.

He leans on the crates tries to push himself up, but can’t seem to hold an arm or a leg steady under himself, falling back against the crates after a moment’s shaky effort.

“Here,” Clint says, and crouches down, his back to Phil, an offer to carry him. There’s a part of Phil that’s railing against it, but he’s too exhausted to make it out of here on his own. He sighs and leans down behind Clint, and Clint hoists him up, Phil’s legs around his waist, Clint’s arms hooked under Phil’s thighs.

Phil lays down against Clint’s back, but doesn’t wrap his arms around Clint’s shoulders; his hands are a mess, and Clint shouldn’t have to see that. Clint doesn’t mention it, just settles his grip and heads for the warehouse exit, and Phil’s head falls onto Clint’s shoulder, too tired to stay upright.

This is almost a friendly gesture, but Phil tells himself it’s for the sake of efficiency. Clint is just doing what he needs to do to get Phil moving, regardless of the endgame. He hasn’t said anything to indicate he’s going to detain Phil for SHIELD prosecution once they get back to the car. Phil won’t fight it if he does; he’s expecting it, at this point. He’s earned it.

Outside, the rain falls light and steady, and the sound of it on the leaves, the cool trickle over Phil’s skin, lulls him out of the miserable wakefulness and quietly down into something more relaxed. He’s not asleep, but he’s close enough, and he loses track of time.

Clint’s heavy foosteps carry them across uneven ground, and after a stretch of silence, he speaks up quietly.

“Coulson?” Clint says, tentative, and Phil hums to show he’s listening. “If I ask you a weird question, can you swear not to tell anyone I asked it?”

“Not much time for gossip in disciplinary hearings and holding cells, Barton,” Phil says dryly, then pauses and dully adds: “I swear.”

Clint nods, adjusts and steadies his grip on Phil’s legs, and slows his pace through the underbrush just slightly. He’s quiet for a few long seconds.

“You ever been much for poetry, Coulson?” he asks, quietly sincere, and it’s the absolute last thing Phil expected to hear from Clint, now or ever, so unexpected he laughs, weak and surprised, into Clint’s shirt. “I know, I know,” Clint says, like he’s going to shake it off.

But Phil would rather talk about this than the past two months’ failures, or the distant threat of SHIELD’s punitive measures when they return. And oddly, Clint’s question isn’t completely off-base, as unexpected as it was. Phil remembers childhood competitions in a small Midwestern town, where scores of kids came to mumble out well-trodden classics to their feet, prompted by their parents, and Phil could stand straight and sure and curve his voice just right around in Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree, as familiar to him then as SITREP forms are now.

He isn’t going to be much use with SITREP forms anymore, so he sighs in defeat and says: “Poetry and I are acquainted.”

“Yeah?” Clint says, sounding surprised, maybe relieved.

“Why are you asking me about sonnets, Barton?” Phil asks with a tired smirk.

Clint laughs quietly, and the sound hums against Phil’s chest. Shrugging, Clint pauses again before he answers.

“I dunno. There’s this Robert Frost thing, right?” Clint says, voice conspiratorily low. “About the woods. I read it somewhere a while back. And the end of it goes,” here Clint’s voice slows, and goes on: “‘The woods are lovely, dark, and deep; but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.’”

“Is this your way of telling me you’re tired of walking?” asks Phil, and Clint shakes his head.

“C'mon, I’m serious,” he says, albeit through a laugh. “If you’re gonna be a pain in the ass, I’ll just talk about something else.”

“I have no doubt,” Phil replies.

But he stops making snarky comments about Clint and poetry, and Clint doesn’t change tracks onto talking about anything else. After a while more walking in silence, Phil is starting to genuinely wonder.

“Why are you thinking about Robert Frost?” Phil asks seriously.

“It’s only the one bit,” Clint says, like it’s embarrassing to have remembered anything at all. He did ask Phil not to mention this conversation to anyone else. “I just thought of you walking alone out here. You must’ve barely stopped moving this past week and you gotta be exhausted, and you still came running in to...” he trails off, lungs held tight and still for a moment, then sighs it out. “It made me think of that.”

Phil doesn’t have anything to say, so he just lets his head rest against Clint’s shoulder and closes his eyes, echoing the sigh.

He did have promises to keep, but he’s broken most of them.

That’s something he can live with, he’s decided. Loki was right that Phil has lost his value, but regardless of his other failures, he’s bringing Clint back alive. The footsteps beneath him, the arms hooked under his legs, the breathing against his chest—this is all proof that Phil has done one thing right in all of this.

And then he remembers there are scars under the shirt where his cheek rests, where they cut into Clint and beat him down while Phil sat and watched, and he tells himself that this isn’t doing anything right, this is only setting back what he did wrong. There’s nothing noble in any of this.

The woods stretch on for miles, and Phil isn't sleeping.

+++

Phil isn’t sure how long it’s been when they emerge from the trees into a clearing, familiar and thinly separated from the highway by the edges of the forest.

“I’m fine from here,” Phil says, leaning up, and Clint eases him down onto his feet—Phil instantly pockets his hands, hiding his fingers—then lays a steadying hand at Phil’s shoulder as Phil shifts his weight between his feet, testing.

Scanning the highway, Phil spots Natasha’s spare car where he left it, pulled aside to the shoulder. The isolated highway has its benefits; no one has called in for it to be towed. Phil is about to head towards it when he sees Clint turn to him in the corner of his eye, watching.

“So I suppose we just drive until we find a phone, call SHIELD, and get a lift home?" Clint asks, sounding reluctant. Phil can’t imagine why that would be; Clint should have a comparatively warm welcome waiting for him when he gets back.

“What we do now,” Phil sighs, “Is I turn myself over into your custody, we find a phone you can use to tell SHIELD our location, and then SHIELD spends a week debriefing us, after which point you should be reinstated as an Avenger.”

Clint frowns at him, like he’s waiting for something, and Phil has nothing else to say.

“Coulson, what about you?”

“I get a quiet solitary cell at worst, and a post in Antarctica if Director Fury is feeling generous,” Phil says with a blank smile, the one he’s used on thousands of people in his life to assure them there’s no need to ask questions.

“Bullshit,” Clint says, scowling at him. “That’s not gonna happen to you, Coulson.”

“I hand-delivered Loki both parts of a possible weapon,” Phil says, not lifting his hollow smile for a moment. “I’m a traitor to SHIELD, Barton. I knew what I was getting into.”

Clint breathes in purposefully like he’s going to say something in response, then sighs it out harshly, glares at the parked car on the highway.

“Coulson, look,” he finally says. “We’re gonna drive somewhere and find a phone, and we’re gonna call Natasha so she’s not worried sick. And then—”

“Barton,” Phil protests, but Clint doesn’t let him.

“—And then, we’re going to drive somewhere you can sleep.”

“This isn’t something I’m going to just sleep off, Barton,” Phil says, looking away at the car.

“When we get back to SHIELD, turn yourself in or don’t.” Clint heads for the car, nodding Phil after him. “But I know what you look like when you’re fucked-up, and I’m not letting the debrief goon squad anywhere near you until you’ve got your head back on your shoulders.”

Phil almost smiles at Clint’s back, following him listlessly across the clearing. Clint must think Phil is just tired, overwhelmed. He’s looking for a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee to bring Phil Coulson, Agent of SHIELD swooping in, with plans and logistics and calm explanations, ready to work this out.

All he’s going to get is Phil, who used to know a Coleridge poem by heart and doesn’t have much left in him besides, washed out by decades of making himself useful, too tightly spun around a sense of purpose to know what to do with himself when he couldn’t fulfill one anymore.

They reach the car—Natasha’s spare, apparently Loki abandoned Phil’s car and keys in places unknown; no huge loss, he tells himself—and Phil tosses Clint the keys, then slides into the passenger seat. Neither of them says anything about it as Clint starts the car.

On the highway, Phil stares out the window, and Clint doesn’t turn on the radio, or play I Spy, or try to talk Phil into taking up archery. Every so often in the edge of his vision, Phil sees Clint looking over at him on long empty straightways of road; Phil doesn’t look back.

+++

They drive until they find a small gas station, where Phil volunteers to fill the tank and stay behind, while Clint (borrowing Phil's coat to hide his bloodstains) flirts his way into use of the station’s phone. Phil doesn’t exactly approve of Clint’s plan to just call Natasha and drive back on their own, but the results won’t be any different either way.

Phil waits, staring out the window at a long stretch of dimly lit green-brown land, distantly ending in the passing stormclouds. He’s never been much for scenery, but he has to admit, there’s a kind of calming effect to the rolling landscape. That, or Phil is just too far down to feel anything but calm.

He barely notices Clint approaching at the driver’s side again, and folds his arms in against his front from where he’d let them rest in his lap while Clint is gone. It’s pointless to hide the spaces, considering Clint was there for both attacks, but he’s not ready for the way Clint is going to look at his hands. Fingers tightly tucked away, Phil turns his head curiously when Clint gets back in.

“Natasha planning to kill either of us?” Phil asks casually.

“I think we’re clear," says Clint, tossing a plastic bag of odds and ends into the backseat. "I heard something about grievous bodily harm, but I don’t think she’s shopping for a shovel yet,” he says, and Phil just barely laughs. “And the lady at the desk says there’s a motel up the road.”

Phil just hums to show he caught that, and looks out the window again at the clouds and the plains, all tinting just faintly orange in what little low sunlight is creeping through the cover.

“So hey, uh,” Clint says hesitantly as he starts the car. Phil doesn’t like where this is going. “You found the staff out there, so I guess you probably remembered something.”

“All of it,” Phil says, hoping to cut off any further questions. But there’s something sticking at him, and he puts his own foot in the grave when he adds, following threads from the fight in the apartment: “You never forgot.”

“Yeah,” says Clint, nearly inaudible, and pulls out onto the highway again.

He could have explained everything to SHIELD from the beginning. Instead, he let them all think he’d shot Phil, let himself be suspended and hounded by the psychologists for two long months. He even rejected Phil’s statement of character when the hearings ended. Phil doesn’t understand any of it.

But he doesn’t know how to ask, so he leans his head against the cold of the passenger window, tries not to think of a warm forehead against his and a bloodied mouth too close, and he’s caught completely off guard by the feeling of something winding tight in his chest, like something he’s lost.

Phil, he can remember Clint saying over the rain, like it was something important. That was just before Phil chose to push himself away from it, before the memory of why all flickered out of him and he woke up a hazy week later with only the knowing, instinctive, that he had to have distance.

But Phil tried being distant, and two months later here they are, beaten to hell and driving away from not only a defeat, but a surrender. He doesn’t know what to do anymore.

So he sits very still, and watches the sky darken into night, looking away from the filled space that’s on the wrong side of his vision now, and this quiet, serious Clint Barton who suddenly has all the patience in the world for Phil’s misery.

+++

Clint gets them a room key at the front desk of the motel, sweet-talking the price down just enough to stretch half of their remaining emergency fund.

The light bulbs all seem defective and the carpet desperately needs stain removal, but compared to some places they’ve stayed, or been shot in, or held captive, it’s practically luxury.

Phil tosses two bags of greasy drive-through food on the dresser, and Clint empties a bag of thrift store clothes onto one of the small beds, enough to replace their bloodied clothing and last the few days’ drive back. Phil has to admit the bed looks tempting, but they have their priorities, if Clint’s mad dash for the food is any indication.

He grabs a shirt and pants from the pile and heads for the bathroom, trying to be optimistic about the motel shower. As long as it runs, he’ll be fine.

There’s a nagging urge in his throat that wants to call over his shoulder, Don’t eat too fast, or you’re going to make yourself sick, but he swallows it and closes the bathroom door behind him, sighing in the low light.

The shower runs, hot, and with almost no water pressure, but it’s enough to scrub bits of leaves from his hair, smooth the sweat from his skin, wash away dust and gunshot residue and more blood on his wrists.

He braces his hands against the wall to let the water run over his back, hot and soothing where the muscles are aching, wearing down easier every year. When he looks up at his hands, they’re clean, just three pairs of fingers and two smooth curves over each knuckle before the slope down to each thumb, and he sighs heavily, dropping his head down again.

Running down his front over too many old scars are bruises from the past week’s fighting and stumbling, nicks and cuts from the forest undergrowth. Sometimes he wonders how he hasn’t been torn in half by this job yet; it’s a miracle he’s still—with the two small exceptions—in one piece. SHIELD isn’t just fighting HYDRA anymore; it’s fighting gods, advanced technology, magic.

Even if he wasn’t facing arrest from SHIELD in the coming days, even if he could still shoot or be efficient in office work, he was always going to be obsoleted sooner or later.

Smiling tiredly at the shower floor, he lowers his hands from the wall and turns to put them under the spray, scrubbing at the last snaking stains of red in the creases of his palms and his fingers.

When he’s as clean as he’s going to get, he bundles himself in a loose hooded sweatshirt and worn, just-slightly overlarge jeans, grimacing at his reflection in the mirror. With his clothes hanging loose and casual, his face bruised, he looks like an NYC tourist fresh off a mugging.

Reluctantly he walks out of the bathroom to find Clint sitting on one of the beds, wiping his mouth with his sleeve and giving the wastebasket beside him an unpleasant look.

“Ate too fast?” Phil asks, managing a smile.

“Loki didn’t care about food after the diner,” says Clint, hopping up and passing Phil on his way to the bathroom. The sink runs, and there’s more spitting, swishing, spitting again. “I was fucking starving.”

“And you’re going to be again when that nausea settles,” Phil reminds him.

Clint walks back out, and Phil picks up his fast food bag from the dresser to drop it onto the bed as Clint sits down beside it. Though he should be starving at this point himself, Phil just isn’t hungry, and he leaves the food without comment as he climbs onto the other bed, sinking down onto the sheets without bothering to pull the folded-back blanket over himself. He folds his wrists close to his body and pushes his hands under the pillow, concealing the spaces again.

“Aren’t you gonna eat?” Clint asks.

Facing away from him, Phil just closes his eyes and rests his head on the pillow where it least hurts his bruises, pretending he didn’t hear Clint.

“Coulson?” Clint says tentatively, and Phil lies still. Clint doesn’t say anything else.

Minutes pass, and there’s a rustling and crinkling of thin paper, a wrapper folding back. Phil used to like getting cheap fast food with Clint on missions, sitting beside him on a rooftop with a box of fries between them, or Clint pulling a rubbery mass-produced cheeseburger in uneven halves to share, always keeping the larger one for himself with a teasing, good-natured grin.

Clint is “Clint” to him again, but Phil can’t help but feel like something’s changed here, something doesn’t fit where it used to, and he doesn’t know whether he wants to crawl under the blankets or roll over to go sit beside Clint on the other bed.

All he can do anymore is be still, except something is going to demand movement of him again soon and no matter what he chooses, it could all go horribly wrong. He freezes himself to the bed and stares at the wall, barely breathing enough for his lungs to move, barely shivering in the faint chill of the motel room.

Sleep comes haltingly to him, pulling him slightly under and letting him ease awake again. After a while of drifting in and out, he wakes to find the bed's blanket draped warm and heavy over his body, his shivering long-since stopped.

He extracts one hand from under the pillow to pull the blanket over his head, burrows under it, and tries not to picture Clint’s still-scabbed and bruised fingers quietly lifting the blanket and pulling it over Phil as he slept, because he doesn’t understand the part of his brain that lights and warms at the thought, that wants the image to stick.

None of these are things Phil is supposed to want, and he presses his eyes shut against the pillow to push them away.

With the warmth and darkness of the soft-enough blankets, he sleeps long enough to dream. He sees Clint's guilty look at his bite marks in the warehouse, the flicker of Clint's eyes to his neck in the kitchen of the apartment when he mentioned Manitoba, Loki digging Clint's thumb in against the side of Phil’s neck and saying, "Maybe I’ll open up his throat again, right where you—”

Through the rain, Phil sees Clint's eyes locked where the bullet ripped Phil's throat open, and remembers the warmth of Clint's face pressed where the blood had just stopped flowing, when the magic burned in Clint and his only thought was to beg for it to save Phil's life.

+++

Exhausted or not, Phil is up at 5 a.m. on decades-old reflexes, and this is all the sleep he’s going to get for the moment.

Clint has always been easy to startle awake, so Phil is carefully quiet as he eases open the plastic bag from the gas station to gather up a handful of necessities: shaving cream, razor, mouthwash. He swears he can still taste dirt from the forest, rain in his teeth, and he hates the scratch of a few days’ unkempt stubble on the sweatshirt’s hood when he bows his head.

That, and routine is calming; doing something normal might help ground him from some of this mess.

Waking up in the middle of nowhere with limited resources and Clint Barton sleeping a few feet away, Phil can’t help but feel nostalgic. He’s half-expecting gunfire to shatter the windows, for a hostile to drop from the bathroom ceiling and try to break Phil’s nose on the sink.

The mouthwash’s blue comes out faintly tinted pink when he spits it out, a sign that at least he’s getting the last of the blood out of his mouth. He counts that as a small victory, and adds in the fact that his bruises are gradually fading, though the one at his jaw protests no matter how lightly he spreads the shaving cream over it. Sighing, he picks up the small disposable razor, reflexively curls three fingers around it and lays his thumb against the side, then stops cold.

This is where his index finger should be pressing up to rest behind the blades. Instead, he stares at his reflection, where there’s only an empty curve of skin behind the handle, no finger to push into place.

Phil sets the razor down and braces his hands on the sink to grip some of the frustration away, slowly taking a steadying breath.

It’s fine, he tells himself after a moment, picking up the razor again. Just a minor inconvenience.

He curls two fingers at the handle, presses his thumb into place, stretches up his middle finger to brace where his index finger should. It steadies the drag of the blades well enough, but the angle isn’t exactly what he’s used to, and his grip is too stiff, can’t quite maneuver it into place.

When he’s done the best he can, he washes his face clean with a wince at the still-tender bruise, then grabs a square of toilet paper to press over his jaw and take inventory. Blood dots and creeps across the tissue’s fibers where the blades nicked his skin; he counts at least seven on his left side, and doesn’t bother with the right.

He throws out the square and rubs water over the cuts again to clear the blood from his skin, and beneath his palms he can feel a few wayward points of stubble he missed. There’s no point in making a second pass for now. He’ll just have to get better doing it like this.

Out of old mission habits, he sets the razor on the left side of the sink, vertical with blades pointed to the mirror; it rests across from an empty space on the right side where Clint would set his, to clearly differentiate them.

Phil tries to ignore the tiny stinging feeling of the nicks on his jaw as he walks out. Coffee would be nice, he thinks to distract himself, sitting down on the bed again. Maybe he could stand to eat something now. There’s probably time to drive back down the road to the gas station, bring something back to share between now and check-out.

He looks over his shoulder at the other bed where Clint is sleeping soundly, breathing slowly into a sleeve curled close to his head, like a guard against something. There’s a small, sharp spark of irrational fear in the back of Phil’s head at the thought of leaving Clint alone here, but he shakes it off. This is over; Loki doesn’t care what they do now that he has what he wants, and Natasha should keep SHIELD off their backs just a while longer.

Hesitating every step of the way, he toes into his shoes and silently picks up the car keys, practicing his most harmless smile to deflect attention from the bruising, the uneven shave. If all else fails, he could actually work this mugged-tourist chic thing and maybe garner some sympathy while he’s at it.

Checking over his shoulder one more time, Phil takes in the sight of Clint sleeping, safe, peaceful, and the smile comes to him involuntarily, warm in a way Phil usually tries to suppress. But there’s no one here to see him, no one here to use this against them, so Phil lets himself smile, and he lets himself linger in the doorway a moment longer before he leaves.

+++

Phil comes back with two large cups of coffee, a newspaper, and a plastic bag of the most trustworthy-looking (and farthest from expiration) pre-wrapped things he could find on the station shelves. He fumbles the key into the door with his free hand and opens it quietly, in case Clint is still sleeping.

Instead, he finds Clint standing in the middle of the room, mid-step, looking suddenly up at Phil and sighing with a force that drags his shoulders down, falling back to sit on Phil’s bed.

“Jeez, you couldn’t leave a note?” Clint says, smiling wryly at him. “I thought you might be making a run for it.”

“You walked through a few miles of forest with me on your back yesterday,” Phil reminds him, setting down the stacked cups of coffee and the bag on the dresser. “I thought you would sleep in.”

“Yeah, well.” Clint stands and walks over, pulling the lids from the coffee cups and sliding the darker one to Phil. He looks up and his eyes pause on Phil’s face, mouth pulling in a sympathetic wince. “Rough shave?”

“I’ll adjust,” Phil says, drumming three fingers on his coffee cup and lifting it to take a sip. Even that takes slightly more maneuvering than before, a tighter grip and an upward slide of the fingers to properly counterbalance the weight.

Clint blinks at him for a moment, then flicks his eyes to Phil’s hand on the coffee cup, to the other hand resting on the dresser, and his mouth opens like he’s starting to say something, but he just breathes out, weakly, with a hurt look in his eyes.

Phil avoids his eyes, staring at his coffee instead, and for a moment they’re still, silent.

“Put the,” Clint starts, pauses, sighs. He walks over to his bed and sits, eyes reluctantly raised to Phil’s. “Put the coffee down and c’mere,” he says, and sheepishly adds: “It’ll just take a second.”

“Barton,” Phil starts to protest, but there’s a depth of guilt in Clint’s eyes that stops his voice in his throat. It’s not pity, at least, so he sets the coffee down and sits beside Clint, waiting.

Clint holds out his hand, palm up as if to accept something, and without meeting Phil’s eyes, he quietly says: “Let me see.”

Phil doesn’t need to ask. Reluctantly, he holds out his left hand, and Clint’s fingers close gently around his wrist, drawing Phil’s hand closer. He’s looking right at the knuckle where the finger should be, the one Loki cut away in the warehouse. Clint tilts his head, leaning down, squinting at it.

“Is it—does this hurt you at all?” Clint asks.

“No,” is all Phil can say.

Clint nods and smiles with relief, still checking it over.

“I was afraid maybe I fixed it wrong,” he says, carefully turning Phil’s hand over.

There are calluses on Phil’s skin, scrapes from trees and concrete, but it’s all background noise for the line across the heel of his hand, where the knife dug in while it was half-buried in Clint’s shoulder. Phil had forgotten about it completely; it takes him a moment to realize the line is well-healed already, practically just a scar. Clint must have found a moment to mend it during the struggle.

“Can I see the other one?” Clint asks. Nodding wordlessly, Phil changes hands, and Clint folds his fingers over Phil’s wrist, cradles the back of Phil’s hand, impossibly careful. Clint’s voice is low, weak, when he asks: “And this one’s okay? Nothing feels wrong?”

“Fine,” Phil says, but it doesn’t ease the guilty look on Clint’s face. In the stillness of the apartment, Clint must have felt the knife's motion through Phil's hand as clearly as Phil felt its edges carving into Clint’s shoulder.

Phil is supposed to say something like, This wasn’t your fault, or You did well, or Loki played us both, Barton.

But none of the words will come, so he sits silently for a long moment while Clint checks over the healed space, and then Clint is letting go, standing up to retrieve his cup of coffee as if he never asked.

Phil stands to grab his own cup, pours a few wrapped off-brand muffins out of the plastic bag from the gas station, and opens the newspaper across his bed. They sit separately, coffee and carbohydrates in hand, and Phil pores over international news pieces full of cover stories SHIELD put in place months ago, some he helped write himself.

When Phil finishes with the front section of the paper, he holds it out across the space between the beds without looking up, and Clint reaches out to take it, passed in a single unbroken motion.

It’s almost like work, Phil thinks, and the realization brings no relief, no easy nostalgia, only a creeping sense of being alone, isolated.

He turns another page in the paper, pinched between his thumb and middle finger, and neither of them says a word, silent until a half-hour to check-out when they pack their meager supplies away to take to the car.

Retrieving the few essentials from the bathroom, Phil pauses at the sink.

Its right side is still empty, and at the left, Phil’s razor sits pointed at the mirror, with Clint’s resting beside it pointed in the opposite direction, fit together on the small ledge like puzzle pieces. Phil picks them both up carefully at the middle, and is embarrassed for himself when he realizes his own nonsensical reluctance to separate them.

He packs the supplies away, then walks out to the car, where Clint is stowing their bagged, bloodied clothes in the trunk.

“So, how many miles to HQ, you think?” Clint asks, closing the trunk lid, and Phil pauses to think, average out the highways.

“I’d estimate a little over 1500 miles,” says Phil.

“Sounds legit.” Clint fishes in the pocket of his hoodie and holds up the car keys, but Phil waves it off. “You sure?”

Phil doesn’t answer, just walks to the passenger side and climbs in.

Clint was wrong, back in the clearing—a decent night’s sleep and a cup of coffee haven’t changed his mind about turning himself into SHIELD and taking responsibility for all of this. But Clint may have been right about something being off in Phil’s head; his thoughts are drifting too far, he’s staring too much, and he’s not sure he trusts himself to keep complete focus on the road just yet.

He trusts Clint, though.

And it occurs to him that while he can trust literally nothing else in the world right now, not even himself, he can still say that with certainty.

Clint drives smooth and steady down the highway, not pushing to get them anywhere particularly fast, and the shape of him settles in the edge of Phil’s vision, reassuring even on the wrong side.

Phil turns on the radio after a few miles, and if Clint wordlessly turns up the volume just a little on the most obnoxious pop song Phil has ever heard in his life, Phil pretends he doesn’t notice, and watches the landscape to hide what’s almost a smile.

+++

They’ve been driving about ten hours when Clint starts mumbling about hunger, almost inaudible under the patter of rain on the windows. Phil looks up from the newspaper crossword in his lap, where he’s been poring over clues without bothering to unsteadily write any answers in, and scans the road ahead for any signs of cheap food.

Clint spots a burger joint drive through with no empty spaces in the lot, and Phil points out a large parking lot across the street, which settles the question nicely.

Dinner is fries and flimsy, thrown-together cheeseburgers, but it’s the first hot meal Phil has eaten since the morning of the Hammer arrest, and he doesn’t care that it all just tastes like grease and salt and ketchup, he’s just glad that it’s warm and goes down easy.

“I heard from Pepper Potts once,” Phil says as he’s passing Clint a second burger, halfway unwrapping seconds himself, “That all Stark wanted when he got back from Afghanistan was a cheeseburger.”

“I believe it,” says Clint, practically tearing into his. “And not just because it’s Tony. I bet Steve went hunting for one as soon as he figured out America was still pretty much America.”

“I always pegged Rogers as a hot dog guy,” Phil says, and Clint laughs.

“Now that you mention it.” Clint pauses, then lapses into silence without continuing the thought. Phil looks over, and finds Clint smiling easily, staring out the windshield. Clint chews, swallows, idly thumbs at a corner of the greasy paper around his cheeseburger. “So, you seem... better,” Clint says awkwardly, and occupies his mouth with the burger to leave Phil to answer that as he pleases.

He’s right, actually. That was almost a conversation, just now.

But Phil doesn’t want to get his hopes up.

“I’m still turning myself in when we reach headquarters,” Phil says evenly, and only feels worse for it when Clint looks quickly down at his food like he’s the one who steered the conversation wrong.

Still, Phil isn’t going back on it. He takes a bite, looks at the rain washing down the windows and blurring the parking lot, retrieves his crossword from the dashboard to take another run at 13-across.

He isn’t expecting it when Clint opens the driver’s side door of the car into the rain and steps out, shuts the door behind him. Confused, Phil looks up and watches Clint walk around to the hood of the car and sit, completely disregarding the cold air and the pouring rain.

Phil looks at Clint’s abandoned food on the dashboard, listens to the rain hammering the roof of the car, and tries to convince himself that staying very still until Clint sorts himself out is the best course of action, but he’s already unbuckling his seat belt.

The rain is cold, and Phil hadn’t noticed through the watery windows but the wind has picked up, too. Still, he just folds his arms across his front for warmth and walks around to the front of the car. Clint glances up, then turns his head away, sinking down to fold his arms across his knees.

“Pneumonia isn’t pleasant, Barton,” Phil says, sitting beside him on the hood. “I’d avoid a repeat of Sarajevo, if I were you.”

Clint scowls at the pavement without answering; he’s apparently not in a mood to reminisce. But Phil knows he remembers, however delirious Clint was with fever at the time. They’ve talked about Sarajevo for years, laughed about Phil being shot in the leg while he dragged Clint to the hospital, not even noticing until he collapsed in the waiting room.

Phil starts to say something to kick that off, remind Clint of lighter things, but Clint beats him to it.

“SHIELD is gonna fuck you over,” Clint says over the steady rain. Phil doesn’t know what to say, and doesn’t have time to think of anything before Clint goes on. “I said the other day that they wouldn’t do that to you, but you know what? They would,” he says, voice rising. “After everything you’ve done, the second they have the chance to pin you to the wall, they’re gonna do it.”

“Finally caught onto that, huh?” Phil asks, smiling grimly.

“That’s not what I meant.” Clint turns to him, miserable and sick and angry, and Phil knows that look from their worst missions, in the seconds before the enemy took one of them for torture, or mirroring the crunching feeling in Phil’s chest when a civilian bled out under their hands. “Look, when we got back from Manitoba, all anybody could talk about was how you were washed-up," Clint says. "All the shrinks—you should have heard them when you weren’t in the room. When they found out you couldn’t remember anything, all they could talk about was you being too fucked up for field duty.”

“It was only bad for the first week or so,” Phil says, shrugging it off and not quite dodging the guilt that comes next. “They gave up on me. Apparently your personnel evaluations were more interesting.”

Clint looks away from him, mumbling what sounds like yeah, thank god, and then his rambling stops instantly as he pinches his mouth shut in a line. Something fires in the back of Phil’s mind, connecting too many dots at once, drawing lines until he hits something.

You’re better than that.

Clint remembered, but spent two months pretending not to, and the only thing Phil couldn’t understand was why.

“Barton, you didn’t,” Phil says, dangerously low.

“What? They wanted their own personal head case, they got one,” Clint says sullenly, and leans off the hood. “No, look, forget about it. I don’t want a fucking lecture.” He turns away on his feet, and Phil does the only thing he can think of.

He reaches out and grabs Clint’s wrist, three fingers and a thumb nudging under the sleeve to wrap around skin and hold loose at his pulse, not tight enough to force him to stay, just enough, like Phil remembers.

Clint stops cold, and Phil doesn’t let go, just waits, and says: “Just... help me understand.”

There’s a pause, and then Clint looks over his shoulder at Phil, hesitant. Finally, he turns, shoulders dragged down with exhaustion and rain-weighted clothes, head slouched and staring at the pavement.

“There’s nothing to explain, Coulson,” Clint says, rubbing awkwardly at the back of his neck. “They were trying to throw you out. So I faked like I couldn't remember either. Shrinks had a field day—especially with that ballistics evidence.” He smiles, wry, and it doesn’t reach his eyes. It’s too much like Loki’s puppetry, makes something roll sick and heavy in the pit of Phil’s stomach, and Phil can’t keep the frustration out of his voice.

“You let everyone think you tried to kill me,” Phil says in disbelief, wound too tight, and he can see Clint bristling at his tone, hands tightening and shoulders tensing, but he doesn't stop. “You couldn't even say a word to me, after they all told me you—”

“I was hoping you'd believe them!”

Both of them drop sharply into silence, and Clint looks like he regrets it the second it's out of his mouth; he pushes his hands into his pockets, looks away over his shoulder. Phil stares up at him, not even sure if he heard that right, and when Clint swears under his breath, turns to walk away across the parking lot to nowhere in particular, Phil shoves off the hood to follow him.

“Barton,” Phil calls after him, and it only makes Clint walk faster.

He’s starting to make his escape from Phil again, trying to avoid him after pushing too close to something. They’re back where they were a week ago, and Phil can’t, he can’t, not after all of this and especially not after what Clint just said. Phil breaks into a run to catch up, grabs the hood of Clint’s sweatshirt to yank him back, and Clint wheels on him, glaring at Phil like a threat, but Phil knows he won’t.

I hurt you. I feel like shit.

“I told you already, Clint,” Phil says, glaring back at him through the rain. He won’t back down from this, and he’ll say it until Clint believes him. “I don’t hate you. Why are you trying to make me?”

“Because when you don’t, you do shit like this!” Clint says, harsh with frustration as he gestures at Natasha’s car. “I tried so fucking hard to stay away, and you...” He looks down and Phil knows the eyeline by now, shoves his hands into his pockets too late. “And you just run in and throw away your job and two of your fingers, and SHIELD is gonna screw you over and it’s my fucking fault.” His voice breaks off roughly at the end, and he rubs fingers over his eyes, sighs and drops his forehead into his hand, doesn’t say anything else.

The rain pours cold and heavy on them both, and Phil isn’t thinking, hasn’t been able to for long minutes, so he just turns to the nearest hunk of cement curb in the parking lot and sits down. Clint falls heavily beside him, hunched over and staring at the ground.

Watching him, there’s static in Phil’s pulse and blood mixing with the taste of the rain in Phil’s mouth. Phil is sick of seeing Clint bowed over himself, alone and hopeless in the rain, while Phil lies still and does nothing.

And because he’s not thinking, and it’s cold, and Clint is curled in under the rain like he wants to disappear into the ground with the water pooling at their feet, Phil reaches out and puts an arm around Clint’s shoulders.

There’s no hesitation when Clint falls against him, his head resting on Phil’s shoulder and his wrist pressed against Phil’s between them, and Phil squeezes Clint’s arm, almost like a friendly gesture, except it’s coaxing Clint to lean closer and press his forehead warm against Phil’s neck, and neither of them are moving away.

Phil has a sinking feeling that he’s starting to understand the last thing he’s been holding back since Manitoba, since Clint’s bloodied mouth was just an inch from his and giving up everything to protect Phil’s honor, his integrity—because even then, Clint must have known that the minute Phil seemed disloyal, SHIELD would turn on him.

But Clint didn’t give himself up to Hans’ men for Phil’s career, and Phil didn’t come all this way to stop Loki.

Phil leans his head against Clint’s at his shoulder, uncertain, testing, and Clint doesn’t lean away, his skin resting warm and steady over the bullet scar and two months-separated bite marks. Phil’s hand trails up to rest his thumb past the border of the sweatshirt, touching the ridge of Clint’s collarbone, solid and grounding.

He doesn’t know how long it’s been when he has enough sense to lean down just slightly so his voice isn’t muffled by the downpour, and says: “Let’s get out of this rain.”

“Yeah,” Clint says.

It takes a minute for either of them to move, and when they do walk back to the car, they keep their shoulders close, brushing together with slightly uneven steps. Phil might be leaning into the contact intentionally, but it’s hard to feel bad about that, because he thinks Clint might be too.

+++

They bag their wet clothes and change into spares, Phil in the passenger seat and Clint in the back, fumbling and handing each other plastic bags and dry pants, practiced from too many years of disguises and changing tactical gear in tiny intervals between mission objectives.

It’s late, and Clint drove them for hours already today, so Phil pulls a dry, warm sweatshirt over his head and says, “We can keep driving in the morning.”

Clint makes a wordless noise of agreement in between struggling his way into pants, foot nudging the back of Phil’s seat, and Phil smiles a little at that. They haven’t said much since they got back into the car; there’s plenty to say, but it’s been a long week, and all Phil wants to do is put it out of mind for a while, clear his head. Clint seems to have agreed to do the same.

When they’re changed and dry, hair toweled off into damp messes and hands wiped on a t-shirt passed between them, they pick up their food and settle in, quickly polishing off what was left of their unwrapped dinner. Phil’s appetite is coming back, slowly. He supposes that’s as good a sign as any for his health.

There’s one cheeseburger left in the bag between the seats, and Clint pulls it out, unwraps it, digs his fingers in at the halfway point to tear it into inevitably uneven halves. Phil is expecting the usual, smiling already.

Then Clint holds out the larger half to Phil, not smiling easily at all. He looks cautious, like he’s not sure what Phil is going to do, and Phil has to admit, he’s hesitant too; he isn’t used to Clint being like this, looking out for him. But he reaches out to accept the larger piece, and takes it in one hand and the flashlight to read the crossword clues in the other, sitting back in his seat to show he’s not putting up a fight.

They’re just barely finished with the food when Phil stifles a yawn in his empty hand, and Clint says, “Yeah, I’m getting there, too.”

Phil sets the crossword and flashlight on the dash, nodding, and reaches for the release to push his seat back. He’s been sleeping in the backseat the whole time he’s used Natasha’s spare car; he hasn’t tested this yet. To his dismay, he finds the seat doesn’t recline far, feeling stuck on something. It’s not a huge surprise; the car is old, worn.

“Ah, geez,” Clint says, watching Phil in the glow of the parking lot lights. “These aren’t gonna work, are they.”

“Doesn’t seem like it, no,” Phil sighs. He thinks he can see the exactly moment when Clint gets the idea, turns his head haltingly to the backseat. Phil looks, too, and puts the seat back up, clearing his throat. “Well,” he says.

“Yeah, so. Plan B.” Clint pushes up from the driver’s seat and climbs between them into the back, sitting on one side of the backseat and folding himself there.

Phil remembers him curled in the corner of Phil’s apartment, cocooned in blankets and fresh off of an amplified nightmare—Phil still doesn’t know what Clint was dreaming about, still isn’t sure he wants to—and Clint’s arm curled over his face on the motel bed, and he wonders if Clint has been sleeping in guarded positions since Manitoba, how long he’s going to keep doing it.

Not daring to suggest they sprawl out like they did on the drive two months ago, Phil climbs into the backseat after him and takes the other corner. But sitting up in the backseat, he realizes the air is colder a few feet up; the windows are old, and there’s a faint draft coming in. Sure enough, when he glances over, Clint is shivering just slightly, hands rubbing idly where they wrap around his bent legs.

“It’s cold,” Phil points out uneasily, and Clint stares back at him, eyes bright and blue-grey in the lights from outside, their reflection catching and slipping from his eyes as he nods hesitantly.

“Yup,” Clint says, and doesn’t move.

Phil catches himself looking out the window over his shoulder, like something could be waiting in the dark outside, ready to swallow one of them whole if he lets himself anywhere near Clint. Considering how many things have sunk their teeth into them no matter what he does, there’s not much point in being tentative at this point.

“For the sake of logistics, I’m officially suggesting we cuddle,” Phil says as dryly as he can, and that does the trick. Clint ducks his head and laughs, low and easy, uncurls from where he sits on the backseat.

“Good, because it’s fucking freezing back here,” says Clint with a grin, sliding down to put his back on the seat, sprawling one leg towards the floor so he doesn’t kick Phil with it.

Phil crawls across the small space and lowers himself to rest carefully on Clint’s chest, mindful of any bruises he doesn’t yet know about. Their legs shuffle awkwardly, bending between each other so they won’t slip off the side or cramp while they’re sleeping, but they finally find a tangle that works, after some fumbling.

“There,” Phil says, and puts his head down on Clint’s shoulder, sighing shortly in satisfaction. He pretends he can’t hear Clint’s heartbeat just slightly quicker-paced, and blames it on too much effort from shivering, because he’s tired enough for that to seem like it makes sense.

“Logistically sound,” Clint laughs, and slings an arm around Phil’s back to keep him from rolling off and falling onto the floor.

Phil feels Clint’s other shoulder working, pausing, haltingly raising his other arm, and Phil shrugs against Clint’s front, closes his eyes. He’s too tired to be self-conscious, and it’s still cold here.

“I don’t mind,” Phil says, and the weight of Clint’s other arm rests safe and warm across Phil’s shoulders, not a matter of logistics at all.

It passes for “good night”, and Phil can hear Clint’s heartbeat slowing, feel his breathing steady into sleep.

Phil’s eyes are closed, but he spends a while lying still without trying to follow Clint into sleep. One of Clint’s legs hooks around Phil’s with a mumble that hums against Phil’s cheek, and it feels protective, anchoring.

SHIELD is gonna screw you over and it’s my fucking fault.

Phil lets his arms curl up to rest on either side of Clint, hands laying against Clint’s shoulders, and he hopes it’s a fraction as reassuring as the way Clint has unconsciously wrapped around him, like a wall against the world.

+++

Phil wakes up in a backseat with accordingly sore muscles, dressed in an overlarge hoodie, with the taste of fast food clinging in his mouth, and beyond all that he’s also faintly aware of someone else’s morning wood pressing against his stomach through layers of clothing.

“God, I’m back in college,” Phil mumbles into Clint’s shoulder.

A fire engine wails as it passes, Phil’s best guess for what woke him up, and he makes a low reluctant sound at the idea of having to get up. Clint echoes it, arms still folded over Phil’s back and legs curled on either side of Phil’s. Phil cracks an eye open; the solid blue sky outside the windows says it’s long past 5 a.m., but Phil doesn’t care.

“You’re a terrible influence on me,” Phil says, smirking.

“You’re the one who suggested the spooning,” says Clint sleepily in response, but he lets his arms slip away from Phil’s shoulders, leans one leg down away from him. “Also, if this was the norm, there are clearly stories about your college days I need to hear.”

“Not a chance,” Phil says, and leans up and off of him.

He climbs slowly between the front seats and falls back comfortably on the passenger side. And because Phil’s brain is catching up to yesterday and he knows this isn’t what they do anymore, this is two months rewound into something easy, he’s suddenly all too aware of the past two months of separation, and he doesn’t want to let it drop so fast.

“You said something yesterday,” Phil starts, and hears fuck quietly from the backseat, going on before Clint can stop him. “Why were you trying to stay away from me after Manitoba?”

“Because you jumped in front of a bullet for me,” Clint slurs tiredly, “And it tore your neck open right in front of me, and I basically had to watch you die, and also, fuck you for asking me that when I’m not even awake yet and can’t turn off my mouth until I’ve already shoved a foot in it,” he mumbles, and wearily punches Phil’s seat, muffled like a nudge against his back. “Are we done having our sappy conversations about this yet?”

“No,” Phil says, only a little apologetic.

“Then can I yell at you some more about how you’re gonna walk up to SHIELD’s doorstep and let them give you the Anton Vanko treatment?”

“I don’t really have a choice,” Phil reminds him, turning to look at him over the shoulder of the seat.

Clint scowls at him from the backseat, sitting up and rubbing sleep from one eye with the heel of his hand, and Phil can’t help but look at the bruises and cuts on Clint’s fingers.

“Yeah, well, maybe if an Avenger was vouching for you and they knew ahead of time that Loki was involved in whatever was going on,” Clint suggests, “Say, if you vanished on the same night that the Black Widow got a tip that Loki was fucking around with two of SHIELD’s people.”

Phil blinks at him, not quite understanding, and Clint grins tiredly back.

Warsaw, Coulson,” he says slowly, and Phil remembers punching numbers into the payphone with a bloodied hand, realization dawning slowly through the haze of sleep. “Natasha’s probably still selling them on it, but if we give the investigation another day, she’ll probably have Fury and Hill convinced that Loki’s been pulling strings.”

“I still turned over a weapon to Loki,” Phil argues, turning around in the seat to keep from looking at Clint’s confident grin, because he’s starting to see some logic in the whole thing. “And I injured personnel to do it.”

“Yeah, she mentioned you tranq’ed a few juniors and didn’t even let them hit their heads on the floor,” Clint laughs, voice dry and eyebrows raised in the rear-view mirror as he says, “What a cold-blooded traitor.” His expression turns somber, smile weakening. “Also, you turned over a weapon to Loki because I was dying.”

Phil fixes his eyes on the scenery and deliberately doesn’t think about this, but Clint is climbing out to sit in the driver’s seat, drawing his attention again.

“SHIELD may be out to get you for some of this,” Clint says, “But you realize even if Fury did put you in Siberia, the Avengers would probably bust you out anyway, right?”

“Yes, we’re all a big happy family,” Phil mutters, smirking out the window.

“I’m serious,” says Clint, and he sounds like it. “And even if they didn’t, I’d do it myself.”

“You can’t even manage in a drafty backseat, Clint,” Phil says lightly to deflect the warm feeling constricting his chest, “You wouldn’t last a day in Siberia.”

“Maybe I’ll lose a few fingers to frostbite and we’ll be even,” Clint shoots back, not deflecting at all.

Phil turns to him in alarm, starts to warn him, no, don’t even think that, but Clint’s eyes are on Phil’s hands already. This is a fight Phil has long since lost.

“Loki used you and he used me,” Clint says, not raising his eyeline from Phil’s fingers. “If you want to guilt trip yourself into solitary confinement, you can do it yourself. Just keep a bag packed to leave for when I come to break you out and bring you home from Santa’s Workshop.”

Phil is trying to find an argument, and to tell Clint that this whole conversation is pointless (lying), and that it couldn’t possibly work (still lying), and that there’s no way he’ll be let off easy for this even with the Avengers backing and Loki as a known variable (he has no idea), but he’s stuck on a word and he’s not sure where all of those thoughts are trying to go because he keeps looping around to this one thing.

Bring you home.

A thousand miles away from them, there’s only SHIELD headquarters and Phil’s bloodied, empty apartment, and both of them know there’s nothing waiting for Phil in either of them that could be remotely called home.

Phil thinks of a bruised hand pulling a blanket over his shoulders and a newspaper passed between beds, a warm arm over his back, and doesn’t think for one single second about Clint’s head on his shoulder in the rain.

He thumps his head against the passenger window and stares at the landscape like it’s going to help him make sense of anything, barely managing to escape the whole idea before the radio turns up sharply and Clint starts singing “Dancing Queen” along with it at the top of his lungs.

Phil Coulson is in love, and he doesn’t know when it started, or how it’s gotten this far, or how he knows the words to this song by heart, but he’s decided to lay the blame squarely on Clint for all of it.

He thumps his head against the window again to pretend he’s miserable, and Clint only belts out the chorus louder, because Phil knows he’s never had any patience for anything, and he’s starting to think this routine isn't as much about the misery as it is about Phil, and the small things they share that aren't work at all.

+++

There’s just enough money left in the emergency fund to get them one more motel night, and when night is falling somewhere in the middle of Ohio with 500 miles left to NYC, they spot a place on the highway and pull in.

It’s slightly better kept than the motel in North Dakota, with light bulbs that actually shine at full strength and carpet that’s uniformly colored, and Phil is willing to bet the last twenty dollars in their budget that the shower actually has water pressure.

But thinking about the shower, aware of forming stubble on his face, Phil is uncomfortably reminded that he’s going to have to try the razor again, and if he’s lucky he’ll only tear open a few of the nicks from last time.

Clint follows him into the room with a bag of convenience store food on one arm and their last set of dry, clean clothes in the bag on the other, and despite the extremely light lifting and short walk from the car, he seems slightly out of breath.

“You all right?” Phil asks, taking the bag of food.

“Yeah.” Clint nods and sits on one of the beds, setting the clothes beside him before he flops back on the bed. “Kinda dizzy. Stood up too fast or something.”

Disregarding that explanation, Phil starts pawing through the bag of food for anything to raise Clint’s blood sugar, wondering if it’s a deficiency making him lightheaded. It could also be exhaustion, or stress, but Phil can’t do anything about those, and he’s nursing a faint hope that this is something he can help with, after two months of uselessness.

“Spinning dizzy, or just hazy?” Phil asks idly over his shoulder, and the springs creak as Clint sits up.

“Wearing somebody’s reading glasses dizzy?” Clint suggests, and Phil isn’t sure where to file that.

When Phil turns around, plastic-wrapped muffin in hand, he notices the too-quick rise and fall of Clint’s shoulders, the white on his knuckles from fingers fisted tightly on the sheets, the vague unfocusing in his eyes.

“Clint,” Phil says uneasily, and Clint looks up at him with a faint fear in his eyes that Phil has seen before, when Clint lay framed with fallen arrows and cold air cut a tight line around Phil’s neck.

There’s blood on the sheet beneath Clint’s hand where he’s digging fingernails into his palm, showing no tell of pain in his eyes at all, and Phil should have known, should never have let himself think this could get easier or that this would leave them alone.

Hawkeye is a mortal, and magic burned too long inside his body; he cannot escape it untouched.

“Coulson,” Clint says slowly as he pushes himself backward with shaking arms, getting his legs up onto the bed, “Y’know that feeling before the staff hits you, when it’s all stuck under your skin before the pain?”

Phil nods mutely, and Clint drops backward to lie down, sprawled perfectly still with his breathing trembling violently, eyes shut, and Phil understands instantly. He remembers the fear, the stillness, the slightest contact or movement burning pain through his whole body at once.

“Is this how it starts?” Phil asks, sitting beside him, and Clint manages a tiny nod. Phil can say nothing to help, and he watches Clint’s eyes, not saying another word.

Clint stares back, and there’s a flicker of knowing, a flutter in Clint’s breathing just before his eyes squeeze shut and he arches sharply up off the bed, screaming through his teeth. It’s short, just a single jolt, and he drops down a moment later, making a weak sound of pain on impact. Phil knows that reaction, he’s felt that. Hypersensitivity, like Manitoba, like the range.

Damply blinking his eyes open, Clint looks at Phil’s face and starts to smile crookedly, like he’s supposed to be reassuring Phil here, but the motion hitches his breath and makes him wince, and that only draws a further pained sound from his throat.

“Just lie still,” Phil says, easing himself down onto the bed next to Clint so the springs don’t shake him. “I’ll be right here until it's through.”

“Hmm,” is all Clint says, and Phil knows even that much hurts. Clint lies very still and breathes shakily, and light catches on wetness at the corner of his eye, either from fear or hurt or just strain on his body.

Phil lies still next to him, unable to help, and he doesn’t know what else to do, so his mouth starts moving in an old pattern he knows, voice slipping out in a cadence he could repeat for days.

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree,” Phil murmurs, and the corner of Clint’s mouth quirks, his breathing just slightly easing, “Where Alph the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea.”

And he keeps reciting, all the words falling out of him after decades of holding them back, because Phil Coulson of SHIELD had no use for poetry and shuffled it away like the small set of family photographs he keeps in a safe deposit box far from here, all things that belonged to him when he was only “Phil”.

When Phil is slowly saying: “Weave a circle round him thrice, and close your eyes with holy dread,” Clint’s chest rises and falls steadily, his body still and calm to keep from stirring the pain up again. “For he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise,“ he finishes after a moment’s pause, and Clint’s only response is to blink his eyes open, smile faintly.

“Still hurt?” Phil asks, and Clint hums again, which means yes.

“Little trouble breathing,” Clint whispers, lips barely moving.

“I’d have to move you,” Phil says regretfully, and Clint makes a small nod. "You sure?"

“Trust you,” he manages.

Ignoring the infinite and sort of overwhelming implications of those two very small words, Phil focuses on the task at hand.

He sits up on the bed and edges forward, careful as one arm slides under Clint’s shoulders, elbow angled to support the back of his head. He lifts Clint up, wincing at the catch in Clint’s breath, and eases the pillow under Clint’s head forward a ways. When he lays Clint down again, slow and soft, Clint’s head tips back slightly over the pillow, just enough to get the airway open.

“Thanks,” Clint breathes through a small smile, and his chest swells with an inward breath, steady.

Phil lies down beside him again, waiting, and smiles calmly to hide the sudden fear arcing up his spine that the aftereffects, this pattern, have lasted beyond the scope of the magic’s seal.

Yes, Hawkeye, I’ll let you. It’s only going to hurt you worse when the magic leaves you.

Phil thumbs the empty space at his left hand where the magic mended him through Loki’s taunting.

He still doesn’t understand what he’s done to deserve this loyalty from Clint, and it’s killing him not knowing, so he does the only thing left to him and starts again, pretending there’s no waver in his voice as he recites: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan...”

+++

Two hours after the symptom onset, Clint finally stops shivering and blinks his eyes open again, and Phil watches over his shoulder from the foot of the bed where he’s been sitting sentry.

“Hey,” Phil tries, managing a smile to hide the flood of open worry he’s holding back, and Clint grins back, the way he grins when he catches Phil at his bedside in Medical, when Clint is bandaged from something reckless.

“You still up?” Clint asks blearily, and Phil nods once. “Geez, Coulson.” Clint pushes himself up, starts toeing under the sheets and blanket of the bed to get under them. “Get some sleep.”

Phil is trying to be calm, but he’s been fighting off a thought for the entire second hour, and he thumbs at the space in his left hand as he turns around where he sits, watching Clint uneasily until he can find his voice.

“Did this happen to you at all before the shooting range?” Phil asks, and Clint looks reluctant to answer, but he nods.

“Yeah, just once.” Clint sighs, smiles grimly across the bed at Phil. “When you guys took down Hammer.” Before Phil can ask, he goes on: “I sat it out in your office. Knew no one would look for me there.”

Phil pieces that together, thinks of broken stitches, Clint meeting his eyes for the first time since Manitoba. Looking back, he remembers how weighed-down Clint was. There’s a static feeling in Phil’s wrist, contact he couldn’t forget even when he tried.

“You stopped avoiding me,” Phil says uselessly, but it’s stuck on him.

“Yeah.” Clint raises a bruised hand to the back of his neck, sheepish, and gives a small shrug. “The pain thing freaked me out. I got careless.”

I was scared, he doesn’t say, but it’s clear in his eyes. Phil understands, and he wants to ask more about it, let Clint talk, but there’s something else he needs to know first.

“Did Loki say how long you’ll be dealing with this?” Phil asks quietly, and Clint’s deflecting smile fades, his gaze dropping to the bedspread and away from Phil.

“Said it’d be every week or so,” Clint says, and goes on almost inaudibly, like he doesn’t want to be heard: “Probably a lifetime thing.” Phil’s idly moving thumb goes immediately still against the curve of his knuckle, and Clint averts his eyes, sighs slowly away from Phil’s stare.

There was a time when that avoidance would start Phil lecturing, get him set on telling Clint there are such things as unacceptable risks, this is nothing to shake off, this is the rest of your life, do you even understand what that means?

What Phil does is crawl across the bed to sit beside him, his back to the wall and his shoulder resting against Clint’s, and slowly runs over that last part of what he was thinking, because something’s just sparked in the back of Phil’s mind and no, he doesn’t, Phil doesn’t understand what that means, and he’s been pushing the idea away this whole time.

He rubs his thumb over the knuckle, a space that’s never going to connect to anything, and it’s not going to be shooting or paperwork that gets to him, it’s going to be the shaving and the crossword and turning pages of things, a million tiny motions he has to re-learn that may never feel completely right again.

“A lifetime thing,” Phil echoes.

He holds out his hand to look at its silhouette against the far wall, where both of them can see, and takes in the shape of it in the light without shamefully turning his eyes away.

For a long moment, they’re both silent.

Then, in the quiet, Clint notes: “Well. At least you’re symmetrical.”

A helpless smile spreads on Phil’s face, and he tries to hold back but that only makes it worse when he loses it and laughs, really laughs, squeezing his eyes shut and curling his arms over his stomach where it’s hurting his bruises to shake like this. His head drops onto Clint’s shoulder, too caught up in laughing to care, and Clint is clearly holding back from snickering at his own joke.

“Oh, sure, mutilation is bad,” Phil says, when he catches a breath, “But at least he had the decency to even it out.” And Clint is clamping a hand over his mouth, shaking his head, refusing to laugh. “It’s all about aesthetics, Clint,” Phil assures him, and Clint is gone in a fit after him, head tipped back against the wall and tears in his eyes, elbowing Phil’s arm.

Shit,” Clint hisses, grinning through the edges of his laughter to speak, “Don’t make me laugh at this!”

“You started it,” Phil points out.

“Actually, you know, I did,” Clint says, smirking as he smooths away his laughter. “Fuck Loki, he made the mess. I’m the one who fixed it all up nice.”

Phil turns his hand in the light, rubs his thumb over his knuckle again, and can’t help but smile. Clint really did do a nice job, considering the horror he had to work with.

It isn’t going to be easy, living with this, and it’s a life sentence of learning and doing things differently. Phil knows it’s going to be frustrating. But he’s glad to have found out he can still laugh about things—Phil hadn’t really realized how far gone he was these past few days. He would wonder what’s brought him out of it, but he already has a pretty good idea.

“You really would come bust me out of Siberian containment, wouldn’t you,” Phil says, smirking, and Clint leans his head back against the wall, eyes closed serenely.

“I can neither confirm nor deny,” Clint says. He cracks one eye open to look sidelong at Phil. “That, or I could take the easy route and testify to the disciplinary board. Bring the rest of the Avengers with me.”

“You never take the easy route,” Phil sighs, and raises his hand to the light again.

Admiring Clint’s work, he knows in the back of his mind that this, and its symmetrical match, and the marks on Phil’s neck, are why Clint will spend the rest of his life knowing there’s a spasm of pain and a two-hour aftershock waiting for him every week.

Phil won’t let that go to waste. He may have lost a lot of his old skillset, but he’ll make the best of what Clint has given him.

“You’d better start planning this ground-breaking testimony of yours,” Phil says, and smiles in a challenge. “Or researching Siberian geography. Either way.”

Clint nudges Phil with his elbow, smiling warmly back, and says: “Go get some sleep, Phil.”

Phil goes, and gets.

In the morning he wakes up at 5 a.m. like always, and when he goes to the bathroom to take another shot at daily life, the left side of the sink holds two razors resting like puzzle pieces along its edge. Phil aligns his fingers carefully, only nicks himself four times, and leaves few wayward bristles behind, smiling at his reflection from between bruises that have nearly faded away.

+++

Phil laughs when Clint pulls into the parking lot 150 miles from HQ, but Clint shrugs, says they might as well as long as they need a cheap lunch.

The diner is mostly deserted as usual, and they seat themselves at the old booth from before in familiar seats, taking in the scenery. In perfect sync, they smile harmlessly at the waitress and ask for coffee, and she looks between them like she’s trying to place their faces. After a moment, she gives up and abandons them to the menu, and Phil crunches numbers on coffee and tip.

They get cheap sandwiches, just two buns holding chicken, mayonnaise, what they’re told is a lettuce leaf. It leaves them with seven dollars in the budget for a 40% tip, which they consider well-earned for any waitress who’s had to see them this many times.

While they eat, Phil looks at Clint’s side of the table and nudges aside the ketchup bottle there, finding the small arrows Clint etched into the surface, one pointing at Clint and the other at Phil (P.C. still carved beside it); it strikes Phil suddenly that this is what he was remembering when Clint set their razors opposite on the sink.

Phil looks over Clint’s shoulder at the distant form of the waitress, then picks up a fork from the silverware roll beside him, reaching across. He wears the corner of one tine down into the table in a small curve beside the other arrow, then a line, two more curves, until there’s a tiny C.B. by the arrow pointing at Clint.

“Symmetry,” Phil says by way of explanation, and sets his fork down.

“Oh, bullshit,” Clint snickers. “This is like some sad city version of carving our initials in a tree. What next, I carry your books to class and you wear my letterman jacket?”

Not missing a beat, Phil replies: “Only if you keep a photo of me in your locker,” and takes a bite of his sandwich to keep his face blank.

Clint smirks across the table at him, but there’s a gentleness in the motion when he thumbs dust away from the marks on the tabletop.

It’s small, but it’s proof that they were here, and it’s something ridiculous that Clint started and Phil finished, because that’s always been the way of things between them.

They finish their food and leave their tip, and when they get back to the car, there’s a heavy sigh between them, an uncertain shared glance. The emergency fund is exhausted, and there’s just enough gas left in the tank to get them to HQ.

Clint turns off the car again and drums his fingers on the wheel, and Phil doesn’t tell him to drive, just picks up the old crossword and a pen and maneuvers his awkwardly positioned fingers into filling in the last empty boxes, a 19-letter answer for a Schubert piece, E-L-L-E-N-S-D... while Clint picks through the paper.

Phil finishes the crossword, then sets down the folded paper and turns to Clint.

“That Frost poem you mentioned,” Phil says, and Clint looks up from the paper. “It's about a man who stops to enjoy something, but knows he can’t stay forever, because there are responsibilities he has to attend to.” He smiles wearily. “You picked a good poem.”

“Yeah, well,” Clint sighs. “Let me watch the woods fill up with snow for twenty more minutes, all right?”

Phil doesn’t press him on that—or call Clint on his lie of not knowing the rest of the poem—and returns to his finished crossword, looking over the letters. He can see the early clues where it’s all lopsided scribbles or the pen slipped, but the Schubert piece answer is legible, at least. The block printing looks a little like Clint’s writing, and it makes Phil smile to himself.

Twenty minutes pass, and Clint starts the car again.

+++

Clint stops the car, pulls aside when HQ is faintly in view, and the sense of acceptance and determination Phil had felt is melting into dread, hanging heavy in the air. He takes a slow breath in, unbuckles his seatbelt like it might relieve the tightness in his chest. It doesn’t.

As he lets the breath out, a heavy hand presses to his shoulder, and Phil feels like the world is about to turn upside down. He looks across the car to Clint and manages a smile.

“Know it doesn’t do much good,” Clint says, looking at his hand on Phil’s shoulder, squeezing firmly. “But... yeah.”

“Didn’t do much good when our car was about to explode, either,” Phil says, and smiles a little more evenly with the joke. Clint swallows hard, nods slowly.

“Look, about that,” Clint says hesitantly. “Before we go in there, let me just.” He looks away, out through the windshield towards HQ, then leans in closer to Phil, lowering his voice, solemn. “When the car spun. Putting your hand out, even if it didn't do anything—just, thanks for that.”

Phil nods slowly, unsure of what to say.

“Sure,” Phil says, and thinks of Clint’s hand clutching at his shirt in the flipped car, wrenched away from him with force like Clint was holding on desperately. He shakes off the thought. There will be time to talk about Manitoba soon, when the debriefing starts.

Phil has his head on his shoulders now, and his smile steadies as he nods once, ready.

Clint opens the car door and Phil opens his, and they fall into step on their way down the street to SHIELD, and if Phil is leaning in just slightly to brush his shoulder against Clint’s every few steps, and Clint’s is answering back with a nudge of his own every so often, Phil decides that this is fine.

And he decides that he’s surrendered enough for one week.

“Loki really got us good,” Phil says, raising his eyebrows as he sees Clint look at him in the corner of his vision. “We never stood a chance.”

It takes a second for Clint to catch on, but Phil knows it the second he does, when his footsteps barely stutter and his posture eases, relieved.

“Yeah, we lost this one,” Clint says lightly, a smile in his voice. “Gods, huh? Well, what can you do.”

And Phil smiles, too—because considering who they were up against, the truth is, they did pretty well.

They pass the sidewalk block where the security perimeter starts. There’s a sweep of motion from a building at Phil’s left, and dark suits close in, two on either side of them, a tranq gun pressed warningly at Phil’s side as the agents behind them discreetly cuff them both.

“Somebody tell me the extra-dimensi-whatever-the-hell scanners are working so we can clear that up right away,” Clint says hopefully, and the corner of Woo’s mouth quirks at Phil’s left. Phil has maybe missed Woo, just slightly.

The agents lead them into the cover lobby amid a sudden rush of hushed voices, and Clint turns to Phil as they near a branching hallway, grins all warmth and no edge when he whispers: “Thanks for coming to get me, Phil.”

Phil smiles back at Clint, stares at the blue-grey and doesn't care that he holds it just a little too long, and Clint stares back, like it’s fine.

Then Woo and another agent are pulling Phil away to one debriefing room while two others pull Clint away to another, and Phil sighs, ready for what’s going to be a long, long couple of days.

+++

Phil spends a long time in the “debriefings”, which are really just personnel interrogations where the agent in question is cooperative; he’s conducted enough of them himself to know. And they’re aware of that, which is why he’s ditching every interrogation-dodging tactic he’s ever known and giving them the truth.

He tells Sitwell about ordering Clint to bite him for the sake of preventing dental injury, and when Sitwell reads back the summary of events, Phil lets himself enjoy the awkward pause at that bit, innocently taking a sip of water.

He tells Hill about magic, intact and broken seals, artifacts, and she stares at him with increasing misery; he catches her writing f-cking magic in a corner of her debrief notes, and smiles sympathetically across the table at her.

He tells Woo about the fight in the apartment and lays his right hand down on the table to make sure things are clear. Woo stares at his hand for a while, nods, and makes a note in the file. He doesn't ask for specifics.

He tells Facchino about the firing range and the hazard lab, and Facchino shows him the statements from the lab personnel Phil incapacitated, most of them noting that despite his deadly reputation, he seemed to be taking care not to harm any of them.

He tells the head of Psychiatric that he used to recite poetry as a kid, and asks if that's a sign of sublimated, repressed desire towards his mother. The shrink calls Robert Frost a hack. Phil "accidentally" spills water on his notes.

He tells the staff coordinator about his willingness to blow himself up with a Hammer drone, and after about an hour of talking around it, the coordinator reassures him that it was temporary stress, and he's not going to put Phil on observation.

He tells Director Fury that he brought Loki the stone, he brought Loki the staff, and he bowed down on a warehouse floor and begged Loki to spare Clint's life, before allowing Loki to leave the scene with an unknown, possibly weaponized artifact in hand. When Phil holds up the space in his left hand to show the pound of flesh he paid for Clint's survival, Fury blinks with only a right eye as he takes in the sight, and Phil thinks maybe they have an understanding.

He tells them everything he remembers in detail, except the drives and stops he spent with Clint between here and Manitoba, because there are some things he isn't willing to give up to SHIELD, and he hasn't come here to negotiate.

+++

The debriefings take five days, and on the sixth, Phil sits in his temporary holding cell and writes a new statement of character in support of Clint, on the off chance SHIELD charges him for any damages or injuries caused in the past two months. He writes carefully, takes the entire day to legibly write out everything he can think of, and winds up using about ten statement addendum sheets, filling line after line until he's exhausted his memory. He passes the statement out of the cell for filing, nursing a hand cramp as he returns to his mattress to sleep.

The next day, while the panel is still deliberating, a thick envelope is delivered to Phil's cell, containing six statements in defense of him, in six sets of handwriting. The first five, he can identify from just a few words picked from the text, without even looking at the signatures.

Stick up his ass, but honestly a good guy.

A normal man putting up an extraordinary fight for his country.

A reliable colleague, brilliant, understanding.

Efficient.

A noble mortal set against a god.

They're all supportive, surprisingly kind, but it's the sixth in the pile that stops him.

The sixth statement is thick and twice-stapled, familiar blocky print running down 50 pages of full-size statement addendum sheets. It talks about years of fieldwork together and a legacy of loyalty, of protecting fellow agents, including a note on a long day in Sarajevo where a bullet to the leg couldn't stop Phil from dragging a pneumonia-ridden comrade eight miles through hostile streets to a hospital.

It references specific cases by ID, by page numbers of individual reports; it must have taken days to put together. The citations carry through to the last page, where the statement concludes: on a basis of evidence from SHIELD's own records, Phil Coulson is a man of integrity who has spent his career giving everything he has for SHIELD and its agents. He always fought to do the right thing.

Phil reads and re-reads the statement until he falls asleep sitting up on the small mattress in his holding cell, cradling a dog-eared and twice-stapled packet of testimony to his chest. In the morning, the panel is still deliberating, and Phil spends the entire day reading the statement again, immersing himself in the text until all he can see is the letters, and he sits and memorizes every curve and line of the print until they send an agent to escort him to the final hearing.

+++

The disciplinary panel, having taken into account the mitigating factors of Loki’s involvement (and Natasha’s forewarning), the witness statements attesting to Phil’s strength of character, and the presence of magical artifacts with no metaphysical consultation on hand, is lenient in their sentencing.

Phil watches them lay out the timetable for the next six months. One month offsite supervised suspension, they start, because however inadvertently, coerced though he was, he did incapacitate personnel and damage property. Five more months are marked for supervised onsite probation while they determine his adjusted skillset and determine his future placement in SHIELD, with mandatory weekly psychological evaluations.

And due to his willingness to surrender volatile materials to the enemy (again, coerced or not), Phil is labeled a security risk until further notice; his security clearance and level of access are revoked to the absolute minimum, and he agrees to unconditional non-disclosure of his existing knowledge until the appropriate level of clearance has been restored.

The panel reminds Phil that their sentencing is the absolute minimum for what he’s done, eased only by his record and the intervention of key senior personnel. They tell him in no uncertain terms that the next time he is charged with a betrayal of SHIELD’s interests, the writing is on the wall, and Phil will answer to the harshest punishment that SHIELD can muster.

They remind Phil that resignation is always an option.

Phil smiles calmly as he thanks them for their leniency and their counsel.

He signs the non-disclosure agreements with a careful hand, then passes the contract to one of his junior agents who happens to be staffing the hearing; Phil nods respectfully to the agent, now technically his superior, and the junior doesn’t meet his eyes.

The panel dismisses Phil from the hearing, and officially closes the investigation. While the results of the hearing are processed, Phil is returned to his holding cell, where the envelope of statements has been removed due to sensitive information beyond his security clearance.

He lies down on the small mattress and stares up at the silhouette of his hand against the ceiling, and doesn’t think about anything in particular.

+++

During processing, they clean out Phil’s former office, including the bag of essentials he’d long-since brought from the apartment. The apartment itself, bloodied and not holding much besides clothing, is deemed a security risk due to Loki’s time there; a retrieval team clears out Phil’s belongings and starts decontamination. When SHIELD sends someone to the holding cell with the cardboard box from his office, Phil is surprised to see a familiar face.

“Some week, huh?” Natasha says, setting down the box inside. Phil smiles tiredly at her, starting to stand from the mattress, but she waves him down and sits beside him instead, sighing and looking around the cell. “What, no tally marks on the wall?”

“I considered it, but I thought it might be too on-the-nose,” Phil says, and she smirks at him, the look in her eyes softening after a moment.

“I’m glad you came back,” she says, smiling kindly at him. Phil looks down at the floor, not sure how exactly to respond to Natasha being genuine. “And that you brought Clint, because otherwise I would have to stage an accident here, and the resources are really limited,” she adds, and Phil chuckles.

“You’d find a way,” he assures her, and smiles, feeling lighter already. “I won’t be here much longer, anyway. They’re still working out where to put me for the offsite suspension, what with Loki having access to anywhere he pleases besides SHIELD and the Avengers Mansion.”

“About that,” she says, and he turns curiously to her, finding only a devious grin. "I'm not just here to drop off your stuff, Coulson."

It takes a second, but Phil catches on.

“Oh, dear god,” Phil realizes, and drops his face into his hands, shaking his head. “Tell me they haven’t.”

“They’re already putting your stuff in a spare room,” she says, and pats his shoulder. “Welcome to a month of house arrest with the Avengers.”

He groans into his hands, already imagining thirty days stuck with Thor and Stark in the same household. After the past two months’ survival, he’s fairly certain this might finally be the thing that kills him.

But the Avengers must have agreed to take him in, considering their statements, and he’s admittedly feeling an unexpected sense of warmth from all this.

“Is it too late to request a transfer to Siberian exile?” he asks without lifting his head, but now he’s only got his head in his hands to hide his smile, and it isn’t going away any time soon, with Natasha keeping her hand on his back like she really does want him to feel reassured.

He also doesn’t mind that when she escorts him down the hall, her face that says she’s going to find a creative way to injure the first person who so much as looks at Phil the wrong way.

+++

At the security check-in outside the holding cells, Natasha hooks a small, unobtrusive monitoring bracelet around his wrist, and Phil ignores the whispers that are starting to roll through the halls; everyone has seen his hands now, and that’s probably going to keep the rumor mill going for the next year.

Natasha and a few agents on security take Phil out to a waiting car, and he’s secretly relieved when Natasha gets in with him, happy to have someone keeping an eye out for him, instead of just on him. When they pull up at the Mansion, she carries the box from his office for him, sends off the other agents with a glare, and nods Phil in after her.

The other Avengers—bar Clint, who’s going to be joining Phil on suspension when he’s done being checked for any traces of magical energy readings—are all at a security meeting, is regrettably all she can tell him as she leads him up to the spare room they've thrown together.

He nods in understanding, and doesn't ask questions, and he deliberately doesn’t ask her any clarifying questions about Clint. Not because of security, but because Natasha would inevitably catch something in his voice or his face or his body language to betray what he’s really thinking, and then Phil really will have to run off to Siberia.

Once he's safely in the room and JARVIS has scanned his monitoring chip, Natasha leaves to return to SHIELD on business she isn't permitted to explain to him, and he can only watch her go.

Gradually, Phil is beginning to accept that for the foreseeable future, he'll be sitting on the outside edges of life as he's known it. And he'll learn to work with what's left to him. For the moment, it's late, and even with JARVIS it's lonely here, so Phil lies down on the softest bed he's felt in two weeks, and sighs slow and heavy as he asks JARVIS to notify him when anyone enters the premises.

The longest two and a half months of Phil's life are finally over, and there's nothing to do now but process it.

So he lies still, and thinks, and when he tries to mumble familiar old lines of something to get his head together, he finds himself reciting whose woods these are I think I know; his house is in the village, though under his breath instead, and doesn't sleep.

+++

JARVIS rings a quiet tone from the access panel on the wall, drawing Phil out of his thoughts.

"Company on the premises, Agent Coulson," JARVIS intones. "ETA five minutes."

Reluctantly, Phil sits up from under the blankets, blearily looking out the window at the dim sky, tinted faintly orange in the afternoon light; he's been here a while. Sighing, he drops back onto the bed and pulls the blankets up again. Whoever is here will have questions, and Phil is exhausted. He'll deal with the Avengers later.

Everything is quiet for a few minutes, and Phil is starting to feel almost like sleeping when there's a knock at the door.

"Hey, uh," Clint calls. "You up?"

Phil sits up just a little too quickly, swings his feet over the side of the bed, tries not to look like he's just spent a few hours moping around in bed. He's fairly certain JARVIS would be laughing at him, if it could.

"Yeah, it's open," Phil replies.

"Well, my hands are full, so come help me out," he says, and Phil can hear the grin in his voice.

Phil opens the door, finding Clint balancing two cups of coffee in one hand and lifting a plastic bag in the other.

“It’s late afternoon and you brought me coffee,” Phil sighs, taking one of the cups. “You know me too well.” He steps back, leaning on the open door to nod Clint by. “You coming in?”

“Yeah, if you’re taking visitors,” Clint says with a grin. He steps through, setting his coffee and the bag on the bureau nearby, and Phil leans back against the door to close it, watching Clint pull a few Chinese take-out boxes from the bag. “I had to beg Sitwell to make a detour driving me back here, but it was worth it.”

“Place down the street?” Phil asks, smiling involuntarily at the thought of dim lightbulbs and cooks happy to coat everything in sriracha for an extra two bucks.

“Obviously.” Clint says. “Hey, JARVIS, you track down the rest of those files yet?”

Of course,” JARVIS intones from the display on the wall. “The library is fully compiled and ready to access.

“Library?” Phil asks, raising an eyebrow as JARVIS loads a list of files onto the screen, labeled PLAYLIST: COULSON (141), and uniformly titled with SUPERNANNY and parenthetical air dates. “Oh,” is all Phil can say, a little stunned.

“You’re stuck here all month,” Clint says, shrugging it off. “I figured you could use something easy on your brain.”

“You figured right,” Phil says, already looking forward to blanking out his brain on a hundred hours of reality TV. “So this is what you were doing when you weren’t filling addendum sheets,” Phil notes, and Clint’s hands freeze around a take-out box, his eyes flicking hesitantly to Phil’s.

“Oh,” he says, swallowing awkwardly, and then looks down again to open the box. “Yeah.”

He doesn’t say anything else about it, and Phil decides not to press it for now; the character statement said everything it needed to. For the moment, he takes his cup of coffee and the box Clint hands him, and sits on the bed with his back to the wall, facing the display where JARVIS is queueing up an episode.

“You uh, mind if I stick around for a bit?” Clint asks, and Phil shakes his head.

“I don’t mind,” he says. “But you’re going to have to watch Supernanny with me.”

“The things I do for you, Phil,” Clint sighs dramatically, and follows him up onto the bed with food and coffee in hand to sit beside him. He puts his shoulder against Phil’s, settling in, and JARVIS starts up the playlist.

They sit with their backs to the wall and make sidelong commentary to each other around mouthfuls of impossibly spicy food, eyes watering from pain or laughter every other minute. Clint winces through the last bites of his food, but he’s grinning through the afterburn of it.

“Man, I missed this,” he says, looking perfectly content.

“So did I,” Phil confides, and Clint’s shoulder nudges his, because they’re long past the point of pretending not to understand.

Coffee cups and empty boxes set aside, they sit to watch until they’re yawning too much to keep their eyes open long, and JARVIS helpfully puts on his own sleep timer.

“I probably shouldn’t fall asleep in here,” Clint says, but flops back on Phil’s bed anyway. “People will talk.”

“People always talk,” Phil reminds him, and Clint waves it off.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says with a smile, then sighs and starts to sit up again.

Phil doesn’t even have an excuse for what he says next.

“I didn’t say you had to go,” he says carefully, and Clint blinks at him for a moment, propped up on his elbows without pushing up any further. “If you wanted to stay, I mean,” Phil adds, but he’s fairly certain he’s going to talk himself into trouble if he doesn’t shut his mouth, so he shuts it.

And when he does, Clint just falls back on the pillow and laughs, shakes his head.

“God, we suck at this,” he says, and Phil knows what “this” is, but because Clint is right, and they do, and Phil especially does, he isn’t really sure what to say in response.

So he stops trying to “say” altogether.

He leans off the wall to crawl across the mattress, doesn’t even pause as Clint angles his bent legs for Phil to slide between, dropping into place with his head on Clint’s chest. Clint’s arms fold up over his shoulders, legs curled close at Phil’s sides.

“So, humor me for a minute, Phil,” Clint says, voice humming against Phil’s cheek. “Because I’m prone to fucking things up, and I don’t want this to be one of them.”

“I’m listening,” Phil says, and one of Clint’s hands at his back wanders up, slips past the knit of of Phil’s sweater to thumb at the back of his neck, touching the line of the bullet entry.

Clint is silent for a minute, and Phil waits until he speaks up again, quietly.

“When the car spun out, back in North Dakota...” Clint begins, and his thumb trails away from the mark, inches just slightly upward. He breathes in like he’s going to say something else, but sighs instead. Phil moves one hand to Clint’s left shoulder, pressing there on a hunch. “Yeah. That.”

“What about it?” Phil asks, muffled in the warmth of Clint’s shirt and not really caring enough to lift his head.

“It, uh,” Clint says, pausing, and his thumb goes still at the base of Phil’s skull, hesitating. “Well, ever since that,” is all he says.

It takes a few seconds, but Phil finally catches on and says: “Oh.” And after another moment, he says, uselessly: “Good.”

Clint laughs, and then Phil is being rolled over, sprawled on his back on the mattress, and Clint curls his arms on either side of Phil’s head, legs splayed to straddle Phil’s waist, leans down to touch his forehead to Phil’s.

“I’m serious, Phil,” Clint says, his body warm and close and stretched over Phil like a shelter, and Phil’s heart catches in his chest. “If you want to back out,” Clint says, the blue-grey of his eyes soft with understanding, “This would be a good time to start.”

Phil rests his hands on Clint’s waist, slips three fingers and a thumb under the hem of his shirt on either side, and feels warm, tense planes of muscle under his palms, stroking up and dragging the shirt up with them.

He’s never let himself think about it, too caught up in holding back everything else to even consider it, but the heat of Clint’s skin under his fingers is pulling at something wound too tight in his chest, like he’s wanted this.

Hovering over him, Clint’s eyes are uncertain even with Phil’s hands on his skin, like he’s waiting for Phil to take this last escape Clint is giving him; after Clint has reached out over and over, he would still step back, if Phil asked.

But Clint has done enough reaching, these past few months, and Phil doesn’t want him to go.

Phil lays a hand over the back of Clint’s neck, closes his eyes, and draws Clint’s mouth down to his, threading his fingers up through Clint’s hair and clutching his hand in Clint’s shirt to ask him to stay.

Clint’s mouth presses steadily to his, tongue slipping shallowly in and brushing Phil’s for just a moment, and then his lips trail upward, away, touching the line of the thin scar on Phil’s cheek, the curve of Phil’s jaw, down to Phil’s neck.

Without even pausing to think, Phil turns his head to bare the curve of the scar, lays it out to him, and Clint’s mouth opens hot and wet against his skin, teeth and tongue and shameless sucking drags of his lips that flare electric down Phil’s spine. This expanse of Phil’s skin is theirs, anchoring them together, and the feeling is unwinding Phil thread by thread, voice slipping out and body rocking up towards Clint’s.

But this isn’t the only mark left on them, not remotely, and Phil tugs at Clint’s shirt around his shoulders, murmurs: “Want to see you.”

Clint sits up, pulls the shirt off over his head, and they freeze, not because of the shirt, but because they’ve been here before. Phil doesn’t say anything, just stretches up his hand to Clint’s left shoulder, where Loki’s healing left not even a scar behind; the entry wound of the broken seal is clear, too.

Even without them, Clint is well-marked from years of fighting, and Phil’s eyes wander over his front, fingers tracing downward.

What Clint’s 50-page statement of character didn’t say is that on every one of those missions, in every single report he cited, in every addendum sheet he filled, there was an injury, or a reckless moment, a chance taken, and for all of Phil’s notes and reprimands, he knows that he wouldn’t be alive if not for some of those risks.

Phil’s sacrifices and successes are laid out in Clint’s statement for everyone to see; even his lost fingers and the scar on his neck are on display, a part of his reputation. But what Clint has given up, he hides under clothes and an easy laugh, putting high walls between everyone else and the hundreds of marks written across his skin.

The reports will say that Phil is the one who held to his principles in Manitoba and nearly died in a moment of noble self-sacrifice, who looked Loki in the eyes and came back alive with Hawkeye in tow; hardly anyone will know that Clint kept Phil from giving up the coordinates, that he let loose magic to tear through his body in saving Phil’s life, that his smile and his strength and his kindness were the only comforts that brought Phil home a hero, rather than a traitor.

And Clint will just go on laughing, making himself small in sniper’s perches, gathering more scars for every life he saves and showing everyone the kind of loyalty he’d never outright ask of them, even after they write it off as recklessness and disregard for authority, even when it seems like they've given up on him—even when it seems like they've abandoned him completely.

That thought hits Phil like a kick to the chest, and he gathers Clint down again, puts his arms around Clint’s shoulders to pin Clint tightly to him, Clint’s head resting on his shoulder.

“Thank you,” Phil sighs into his hair, and doesn’t need to clarify.

Clint nods, wordless, eyes closed and resting against the line of the scar on Phil’s neck.

Pulling him closer, Phil's fingertips brush the thin ridges crossing one another on Clint’s back, patterns Phil wants to trace until they’re as safe and known between them as the curve along Phil's neck; he can feel Clint breathing against his pulse, and he knows that every few days for the rest of his life, he’ll have to watch that breathing stutter out of rhythm in pain when the magic surges back. He knows there are long conversations they’ll need to have, weighed down by guilt they can’t shake.

There are a thousand questions and problems and frustrations waiting for Phil in the morning, and he’ll deal with them as they come.

For now, he finds Clint’s mouth with his and kisses him until the somber moment fades, until Clint is all genuine laughter and wandering hands, breathless and staring brightly blue-grey when their fumbling finds a rhythm, pressed close and hands curling between them with unevenly laced fingers.

There’s static in Phil’s blood and a weight in his chest and friction beneath his shaking fingertips, resonating through his body, and when he breathes it tastes like Clint’s tongue and the salt of his skin, and not like rain at all.